Proper nutrition is vital to make progress on your fitness goals, whether those goals are to bench press your own body weight or set a new distance record on your treadmill. However, with so much conflicting nutrition advice available, many people fall back on government-issued nutrition guidelines. One of the most recognizable versions of this kind of food guide is the food pyramid.
Sweden First Developed The Food Pyramid
While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been issuing and revising nutrition guidelines since 1917, Sweden was the original creator of the first food pyramid. The Swiss food pyramid came about in 1972 when Sweden was experiencing abnormally high food prices.
Sweden developed the nutritional idea that there were basic foods which were both nutritious and affordable. To help illustrate the proportions, a popular Swiss retail food chain developed the first food pyramid with food like milk, bread, potatoes, fish, and other staples. Many of these elements made their way eventually into the American food pyramid.
The USDA did not create their own food pyramid until 1992. However, other American generations may be familiar with these versions of the food pyramid:
Guide To Eating: The Basic Seven (1940-1955) – An early attempt to give a visualization to food guidelines resulted in the Basic Seven. There were no serving sizes attached to this guideline and all the food groups were equally represented. Considering that butter and margarine had its own group, this was perhaps not the best set of nutrition guidelines.
Food For Fitness, A Daily Food Guide: Basic Four (1956-1978) – One of the longest lasting nutritional guidelines, many from the Baby Boomer generation, were raised on the idea that there were four basic food groups: milk, bread/cereal, meat, and vegetables/fruits. The main emphasis was placed on the bread/cereal group as well as the vegetable/fruit group. All other types of foods were considered supplemental.
Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide (1979-1983) – People on the tail-end of the Baby Boomers and start of Gen X may have seen the Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide. While it did not last long before the USDA revised it, it introduced the emphasis for moderation in consuming alcohol, fats, and sugars.
Food Wheel: A Pattern for Daily Food Choices (1984-1991) – Unlike other iterations of the food guidelines, the Food Wheel attempted to show portion sizes of the foods to eat. However, it was not successful, as the 2-4 servings of fruit section looked similar in size to the recommended 6-11 servings of breads, grains, and cereals.
Changes To The USDA Food Pyramid Over The Years
As obesity rates began to climb higher among the American population through the 1980s, the USDA produced their first food pyramid in 1992. Millennials and Gen Z will have grown up with these food guidelines.
Food Guide Pyramid (1992-2004) – Using the Swiss food pyramid as a template, the USDA developed a pyramid with the food emphasis clearly shown by the triangular shape. The recommended serving sizes did not change from the Food Wheel to the food pyramid, only the shape of the nutrition guideline.
MyPyramid Food Guidance System (2005-2010) – Holding onto the pyramid shape, the USDA changed the portions into vertical slices and removed the recommended serving sizes from their graphics. Also added was a person walking up the stairs, to help emphasize the need to incorporate exercise into a healthy lifestyle. As Americans became increasingly sedentary, this was a good addition.
MyPlate (2010-present) – As the MyPyramid visual was overly busy in a visual sense, the change to the MyPlate graphic was made to help show how a plate should look like during a meal. While the MyPlate graphic seemed to indicate that a greater emphasis was being placed on vegetables, that is not the case. The graphic is intended more as an emphasis on healthy eating in general.
Reasons Why The Food Pyramid Evolved
There are many reasons why the USDA food pyramid evolved over the years. Some of these reasons were due to:
- An evolving understanding of nutrition – In 1977, scientists hired by the Department of Agriculture emphasized a decrease in dietary fat, linking fat to high cholesterol and heart disease. In its place, a greater intake of carbohydrates was recommended. What they did not yet understand was the role of good cholesterol and how unsaturated and saturated fats have a positive role in a nutritious diet.
- Food industry influences – Researchers have investigated the many changes in the USDA food guidelines. Many have gathered evidence that lobbyists from various food industries have heavily influenced the nutritional guidelines.
- Changes in the US workforce – As the United States of America has changed from an industrial nation to a post-industrial nation, jobs have gone from primarily manual labor to skilled office labor. To keep up with more sedentary lifestyles, changes were made to the nutritional guideline recommendations.
Popular Dietary Variations of The Food Pyramid
As the Food Pyramid acted as a loose guideline for what foods should be consumed, many different diets have sprung up as variants on the guidelines. Some diets recommend simple food substitutions, which make it easier to stick to dietary changes. However, the top dietary variants generally recommend much larger changes. Some of these diets are:
Keto diet – Practically opposite of the food pyramid, the ketogenic “keto” diet recommends low carbohydrate intake. The ratios of the keto diet recommend a daily intake of 70% fats, 25% protein, and only 5% carbs. This is done to put the body in a state of ketosis, so the body can use fat as a source of energy, rather than glucose (sugar).
Consumable carbs on the keto diet are considered net carbs. Net carbs are calculated by subtracting the dietary fiber from the total carbohydrates (because dietary fiber is considered a net zero carb).
Paleo diet – Sometimes called the “Caveman Diet”, the paleo diet emphasizes foods which our ancestors ate. This emphasis is made with the idea that our bodies have not caught up with the various carb-heavy foods which we eat now, causing various illnesses and food sensitivities. Grain, processed foods, dairy, and legumes are all off of the paleo diet. Any carbs should come from fruits and vegetable sources.
Vegetarian diet – The vegetarian diet is well-established, enough so that it has its own subset of variations. However, the main vegetarian diet is fairly straightforward. Those following a vegetarian diet do not consume animal meat, but can consume some animal products such as milk, eggs, and cheese.
While the name implies that those following this diet eat primarily vegetables, that is often not the case. Many rely heavily on grains to make up the missing animal meat, which is not recommended.
Vegan diet- Taking the vegetarian diet a step beyond the avoidance of animal meat, vegans do not consume any animal products. They are often motivated by a concern for the environment and/or the suffering of animals. Vegans need to be careful to eat a varied diet and may need vitamin supplements as it can be difficult to receive the proper amount of nutrition if they are not careful.
Gluten-free diet- For those following a gluten-free lifestyle, grains which contain gluten (wheat, rye, barley, triticale, and some oats) are eliminated from their diet. This diet became more popular as an understanding of celiac disease grew. Not all who follow the gluten-free diet has an autoimmune reaction to gluten, but they enjoy the benefits of eliminating a large portion of refined carbs from their diet. Some of the main benefits can be an easing of carb bloating, insulin reactions, and high-calorie foods.
It can be difficult to be completely gluten-free. As gluten has become a staple in many products, from bread to chocolate, those who are gluten-free have to be vigilant.
As you examine your own diet, you may discover some nutritional gaps which need to be changed so you can meet your health and fitness goals. Don’t feel like you have to bind yourself to any one dietary guideline for success. Instead, experiment with your food and find what is right for you.