History of Nutritional Standards

The Food Pyramid: A Brief History


Since its earliest origins in 1837, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has successfully executed countless policies on food, agriculture, farming and forestry. Over their history spanning more than 250 years, they have aimed to protect natural resources, assist farmers and ranchers, encourage agricultural production and trade, guard and protect natural resources, maintain food safety and care for the hungry in rural areas in the United States as well as internationally. However, one of the most important endeavors of the USDA was their formation of nutrition guides. Today, the USDA has generated over 100 years of nutrition advice for Americans.

First Food Guide

In 1894, Dr. Wilbur Olin published the first dietary recommendation. It was titled Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food. In it, he stressed that a diet rich in variety, yet balanced by proportionality and moderation was key. Olin pushed for measuring calories and maintained that this diet could be affordable, yet nutrient-rich. However, at the time of the posting of Dr. Olin’s nutritional guide, many specific minerals and vitamins had yet to be discovered. Since his guide, scientists have discovered the exact number of minerals and vitamins, which constitute the minimum levels needed to prevent illness and nutritional deficiencies. Updated food policies, which include flour products enriched with B-vitamins and the iodine fortification of salt has successfully wiped out a large number of nutritional deficiencies in the United States. However, since these illnesses have been largely overcome, other health issues among Americans began to emerge. This caused nutrition research to shift its focus to determining if cancer, heart disease, stroke and other chronic illnesses could be linked to a diet high in fat, sodium, saturated fat or cholesterol.

First Categorized Food Guide

Consequently, it wasn’t until after these valuable discoveries that nutritionist Caroline Hunt published the first official USDA food guide in 1916. Her nutritional guide was the first to be organized into categories, which included milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty goods and lastly, sugars and sugary foods. For her next guide, published in 1917, Hunt combined with W.O. Atwater, the first director of Experiment Stations in USDA. This guide was meant for the general public and was titled How to Select Foods. Just a few years later, in 1921, Hunt released an extremely organized guide, showing how much of each of the five food groups to purchase each week for the average family of five. Another guide was later created for families who differed from the average-sized family. This guide was so popular that it remained the main nutritional guide for many Americans through the 1920’s.

Creation of the RDA’s (Recommended Dietary Allowances)

Unfortunately, as the 1930’s approached, the hard economic times of the Depression began to keep many Americans from keeping up with Hunt’s standards. USDA food economist, Hazel Stiebeling, stepped in 1933 to develop food plans at four different cost levels to aid people in shopping for food. As the 1940’s approached and World War II began, Present Franklin Roosevelt called the National Nutrition Conference for Defense. This meeting was noted for the creation of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s). This list consisted of specific recommended daily amounts of calories consisting of nine essential nutrients. Another important accomplishment of the meeting was the formation of public nutrition education. The conference went further still in creating 10 characteristics of an effective nutrition educational program. These characteristics are still recommended even today.

Basic Seven Food Guide

Another key accomplishment of this meeting was the creation and release of the Basic Seven food guide in 1943. Later, in 1946, it was modified and became known as the National Food Guide. Being specifically created for hard economic times when food needed to be carefully rationed, this guide provided Americans with the knowledge of a foundation diet that would provide a large share of the RDA’s. However, this was only the case for nutrients since the guide only covered a portion of the calories one needs in a day. The creators of the guide assumed that Americans would include other foods in their diets to satisfy any remaining needs. Also, not much guidance on the use of sugars and fats were provided. In 1946, a version of the guide was released that suggested food groups, yet it lacked specific information about serving sizes and was too complex. Thus, further modification was needed.

Basic Four Food Guide

This modification, however, did not come until 1954. It was then that the USDA implemented the Basic Four guide. This guide was the number one guide across the nation and in the education system until 1992.

This guide featured four food groups, suggesting a minimum number of foods from each group. These groups included: milk, meat, fruits and vegetables and grain products. The focus of this food guide was simple- getting the proper amount of nutrients.

The Surgeon General Spurs on the First Food Pyramid

However, as the 1970’s approached, researchers were beginning to discover a definite connection between the over-consumption of sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat and fat to heart disease and stroke. Due to this groundbreaking discovery, the USDA began to emphasize excessive consumption of certain foods over getting the proper amount of nutrients. Since this new diet was so different that usual diet that Americans had followed for decades, the USDA did not use the new discovery as the foundation for the new guide. Despite this, the new discovery did draw attention to the fact that the established American diet needed some re-examining. To help Americans gain awareness in the discovery, the Surgeon General published a report titled Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommendations in this release encouraged the consumption of a variety of foods for essential nutrients, maintaining ideal body weight and limiting consumption of fatty foods.

With this release, the USDA began developing a new food guide that would aid Americans in making healthy choices daily. After three years of effort, It was released by the Department in 1993.Unlike earlier guides, this new guide focused on how to select foods that meet nutritional needs while also making consumers aware of what to limit or monitor in their diets. It consisted of five food groups, organized in the fashion of a pyramid, beginning with bread, cereal, rice and pasta group, the vegetable group, the fruit group, the milk, yogurt and cheese group and the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group. On the top of the pyramid was the sixth food group- fats, oils and sweets- that were to be used sparingly. It was not until 1988, however, that this pyramid was represented in a visual diagram. After testing the design, it was determined that presented the food guide graphic as a pyramid design was best, as it concisely represented the guide.


As researchers began to realize the importance of physical activity combined with a healthy diet, the food pyramid was bound to go through more revisions. So, after over a decade of dominance and minor revisions, the food pyramid saw major revisions and became known as MyPyramid. The USDA released this food guide in 2005. It includes six food groups, as well as a visual representation of physical activity, shown as a figure running up the side of the pyramid. Above all, physical activity is stressed in this food pyramid. Of course, a nutritious well-balanced diet is essential, but MyPyramid stresses that daily physical activity is a must. The food groups consist of (from left to right), grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk and meat and beans. Each group has specific recommendations. Grains, for example, are recommended to consist mostly of whole grains. Fruits put emphasis on variety and discourage the frequent consumption of fruit juices. There is another category on the pyramid as well, labeled the Discretionary Calories. The tip of each colored shape represents this. It includes foods such as alcohol, candy or any other foods from other food groups in excess. Also unique to this new food guide is the fact that it offers 12 sets of possible recommendations. One can go to the MyPyramid website an input their sex, age and activity level and receive a complete individualistic food guide.


Despite the revolutionary new and improved food and lifestyle recommendations that MyPyramid had to offer, it did cause confusion among many consumers. It has been said to be too abstract and complicated. Thus, the USDA released the MyPlate guide in 2011, which ended 19 years of food diagrams being displayed as pyramids. The MyPlate graphic features a plate divided into four sections: 30 percent grains, 30 percent vegetables, 20 percent fruits and 20 percent protein. Next to the plate is the final food group, dairy, represented by a cup, which would consist of milk or yogurt. Like MyPyramid, it also gives more specific recommendations on every day dietary choices. It makes suggestions, such as the variation of protein choices and making half or your daily grains whole grains, just to name a few. Although MyPlate was well received for its simplicity, it also got its share of criticism. Some critics said that the visual representation of the recommended American diet was too simple. This left out the opportunity to warn consumers of good and bad fats or educate them on unhealthy or healthy proteins. It was also argued that depicting proteins was unnecessary, as Americans already eat enough protein aside from meat. Others said that the dairy category was unnecessary as well. However, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke highly of it, saying that this diagram can help us keep an eye on how we portion our children’s plates. After this statement, she was quoted as saying, “It’s as simple as that”.


After nearly a century of research by dedicated nutritionists at the USDA, the food guide has been modified many times to accurately reflect what a balanced, healthy American diet should consist of. Through the years, as any issue with the food guide would arise, the USDA has worked diligently to correct it and inform the general public of the changes. The USDA is truly dedicated to educating Americans on nutrition. They’ve proven that they are genuinely concerned about the health and well-being of Americans and will continue to do so for years to come.