The Evolution of the USDA Food Pyramid: An Unsound Foundation

2015 is going to bring great things. Among others, HBO’s Veep season 4, the AppleWatch, but most importantly, the USDA is going to publish their new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Every 5 years, the institution graces us with a data-filled report, and a simple take-home message, usually in the form of a pyramid (or more recently, a plate) to tell us what diet to adopt in order to “maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health” (sic).

While we wait with bated breath, please allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane and look at the evolution of this dear Food Pyramid.

Let’s start in 1943. The USDA created the ‘basic seven’ food groups which they recommended every American ate on a daily basis.
Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.31.48
These were the first guidelines, and in my opinion, the best the USDA ever gave. It’s all down hill from here…
Let’s take a look at this beautiful ferris wheel: pretty straightforward and sensible recommendations. No vegetable oils, or refined sugar, lots of fresh produce. Basically (for the exception of Group 6), whole, real, unprocessed foods. The presence of the milk group is likely due to the influence of the National Dairy Council (they have always been successful at aggressively marketing their product. See: the ‘got milk?’ campaign).

Special mention to Group 7: BUTTER! (Let’s go right ahead and cross out that horrendous fortified margarine). Ah, these were the days when the American population was encouraged to eat saturated fat. This very quickly changed.

Let’s jump straight ahead to 1956’s ‘A guide to good eating’
Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.33.46
Here it starts getting complicated. The notion of servings is introduced. What else changed? Milk is in the spotlight (thanks again, National Dairy Council); carbohydrates and vegetables are in equal weights, at 4 or more servings per day.

In the 1943 ferris wheel above, the bread/flour/cereals group accounted for only a 6th of the daily recommendations. Now in 1956, it is a third of the total servings! (4 out of a total 12-14 servings).

How did this happen?

In the 50’s, the processed food industry exploded. Fast food was everywhere. TV dinners, the remote control, and all the reagents needed to make stabilised starch products (breakfast cereal, WonderBread…) were invented. People loved it! And as for the inventors, this meant huge profits. (Remember Marion Nestle’s quote: “the more processed a food is, the more profit for the manufacturer”). By encouraging Americans to eat more grains, the USDA helped the processed food industry become the goliath it is today, and made its population sick. And it doesn’t stop here…

1992: The beginning of the Food Pyramid
Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.34.37
May I present: the night-sky-filled Egyptian pyramid

Okay, so now carbs (Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta) are the big grand daddy solid base of american nutrition. They aren’t even at equal weight with fruit and vegetables anymore. They are, the USDA would say, a solid foundation to a healthy diet, more so than fresh produce and un-processed foods.

In the midst of the low-fat craze, and because of the considerable margins on sales of grain-based processed foods, the grain group sadly grew more prevalent than ever.

Carbohydrates are very low in nutritional value, spike blood sugar -leading to more hunger, weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Nevertheless, the USDA recommended that Americans consume 6-11 servings of these per day(!), to stay as full as possible while lacking fats which were unrightfully demonised.

Let’s have a look at the ‘fat‘ issue.
The pyramid encouraged Americans to use fats, oils, and sweets ‘sparingly’. Translation: Avoid fats like the plague. The idea that fat is unhealthy is unfortunately still prevalent today, but the reality is not that simple.
Some fats are good for you and should be eaten on a daily basis (polyunsaturated fats (see previous article), grass-fed butter, coconut oil, avocados, eggs, fatty fish, meat), and some should be avoided at all costs (trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils). Most fats are essential to our wellbeing are part of a health-promoting diet.

The idea of putting all fats in the same boat, and more so, amalgamating them with sweets (a.k.a. the cause of diabetes, obesity, and chronic illnesses), is totally crazy.

The USDA recommendations encouraged people to cut their fat intake because of shady science (more on this in an upcoming article), and to replace it with more carbohydrates. Incepting this behaviour in Americans helped support the processed food industry, which marketed low fat engineered food products. These were cheap to produce, yielded terrific profits, and were filled with sugar to make up for a lack of taste. [This is still the case today, by the way. Look at any reduced-fat food in the supermarket and you will see it has been sweetened.] These recommendations made us sicker, crippled Americans with metabolic syndrome, and definitely didn’t help prevent any of the chronic diseases they claimed to.
 Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.35.31
Need proof?
Check out these two studies from 2000.

The researchers wanted to see whether following the 1992 USDA Egyptian Pyramid recommendations would prevent chronic disease. To do so, they assessed how closely 67,000 women and 38,000 men followed them (in terms of servings per food group per day). The people were divided into 5 groups, or ‘quantiles’, from 1 to 5. 1 being a poor adherence to the dietary guidelines, and 5 being the group closest to the recommended USDA food habits. They then looked at the incidence of ‘Major Chronic Disease’ (cancer, stroke, diabetes…) in these individuals, over 12 and 8 years, respectively.

What did they find? Barely anything.

The women who followed the Food Pyramid the most accurately had only a 3% decrease in incidence of disease compared to the women who were the furthest from the recommendations (but honestly, it’s pretty much a flat line). For men, it was 11%. This means that men in group 5 only had an 11% reduction in MCD risk compared to those in group 1. And, funny note: it looks like if you are a man, being in Quintile 4 will make you the healthiest. This means following the guidelines juuuuuust almost well enough (but not too well, otherwise you will be in quantile 5 and get sicker!). A ‘convincing’ result would be a steadily decreasing curve for both groups. Clearly, there are other things going on, and following the US nutritional guidelines is not the key to preventing disease.

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 14.29.11

Again, this is an observational study, liable to recall-bias (subjects not accurately reporting their diet), and the data is pushed and pulled and adjusted in every way possible. But this remains, as of today, our best shot at observing wether or not the USDA guidelines are any good at helping with disease prevention. I will let you be the judge, but I do not think we can say that they are.

Let’s also have a look at the 2005 and 2011 versions below. The 2005 pyramid is a confused thrown-up version of the previous one. (Notice the superb clipart)
Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.37.28
In 2011, we were graced with another version of the same thing, in the form of a plate. Not specific enough to give any valuable guidance- to get more detailed recommendations, one must go to the interactive ChooseMyPlate.gov website.
Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 11.37.33

Kudos for making the grains group a little less prevalent this time, and not including a ‘dessert’ section.

Let’s consider the omnipresence of dairy since the first recommendations in 1943. Should we all be drinking milk instead of water? If it were all fair and square, the dairy group should just be inside the protein/animal products group, right? That would make the most sense. Difficult not to blame the National Dairy Council for this pan-century presence.

And finally, the fruit group. According to ChooseMyPlate.gov, “Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the Fruit Group



Fruit juice is no different from sugar. When you strip a fruit from its fibre, all that is left is sugar. One glass of orange juice contains 25g of it, and hugely spikes blood glucose levels, depletes insulin stores, and makes us gain weight. For a great recap on this, check out Dr. Lustig’s famous lecture: “Sugar: The bitter truth
The USDA’s recommendations are filled with contradictions. It makes no sense for them to encourage fruit juice consumption and jointly advise to ‘Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Eat sugary desserts less often.’

But maybe we can’t put anything past them. They do consider french fries as vegetables.

Are you still with me? We’re almost done!

Time for the recap.

So, if the recommendations didn’t make people healthier, how did they become recommendations in the first place? Is their sole purpose a lobby-fueled attempt at selling the US’ dairy and grains? Are they the fruit of un-informed and biased experts who are not looking at recent evidence?
Americans got sicker, and the same guidelines just kept being thrown at them. They also set the standard for all Federal nutrition programs, seeding unfortunate diet habits into schools, and fuelling addiction to junk food from a young age. Even if the colours and shapes have changed, the message has stayed pretty much constant for the past 20 years: Eat less saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources (eggs, whole milk, butter, read meat), and more (and more and more) grains.

The guidelines are based on questionable data, and highlight the inherent conflict of interest in the USDA’s dual mandate: to promote US agricultural products (and the processed foods industry) as well as to advise the public about healthy food choices.

What can we hope to see in the 2015 report?

The evidence in meta-analyses is growing strongly and showing that saturated fat intake is not related to heart disease. I hope the USDA will drop their recommendation to eat processed, hydrogenated, and inflammation-causing vegetable oils instead of whole animal fats.

The USDA claims that dietary cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, even though a joint meeting between the AHA and the American College of Cardiology decided to drop the restriction on dietary cholesterol. I know this sounds crazy, but cholesterol you eat has zero influence on blood cholesterol (I will write an article on this topic in the near future).

But perhaps most importantly, evidence has shown that low-carb diets are the greatest for fat loss, reversing Type 2 Diabetes, and reducing blood cholesterol (ratio of total cholesterol to HDL), as well as improving disease blood markers. Hopefully, the equalisation of grains and vegetables in the Food Pyramids between 1992 and 2005 indicates a future trend- let’s hope grains will be even less prevalent this year.

“Fat is not the problem. If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases.” – Dr. Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health

I’m looking forward to dissecting this year’s USDA guidelines and sharing my insights with you all.

In the meantime, please refer to this pyramid I made (great graphical design skills, I know, thank you). And if you want to read more of all this, feel free to subscribe to receive new posts by email! (at the top right corner of the blog)

Happy Hacking!

17 thoughts on “The Evolution of the USDA Food Pyramid: An Unsound Foundation

  1. Pingback: The USDA: in bed with breakfast cereal | Health Hacking

  2. Hey Jessie,

    Great Post, think we’re on the same page here! Australia is ‘mini-America’ in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to diet and exercise, so we have the same challenges with long held beliefs here. There is a groundswell of support though for ‘Good Fats’ and lowering sugar consumption hallening.
    Do you mind if I Re-Blog this with Links back to your Blog?



    • Hey Rich! That’s wonderful to hear about Australia (I’ve always wanted to visit!), and awesome that you are helping get the word out there.
      You are more than welcome to re-blog this, thanks for asking. Love your blog btw 🙂 x


  3. Reblogged this on Core Health Dynamics and commented:
    Wow, it’s been a while huh? My apologies, it’s been a little manic, but have to admit I seriously miss Blogging when I don’t have time to get to it!
    Anyway, I’m cheating by re-Blogging this Post below by Jessie at Health Hacking! Her website is right here: https://healthhacking.wordpress.com . Jessie is a Bio-chemist so knows her stuff. Her writing is articulate, informed, and entertaining. Go on, Follow her, I know you want too!
    This Post is relevant for any country that has government led dietary guidelines. It’s very similar to Australia’s actually (which is scary). Enjoy, and Follow https://healthhacking.wordpress.com!


  4. מיכאל ישורון says:

    Hi Jessie,

    Just found your blog while researching for the evolution of the food pyramid. I liked your post very much.

    Couldn’t find a contact option on your blog, so I decided to try here.
    Wanted to say hello since I too am writing and researching about various aspects behind nutrition.

    My blog is focused on the philosophy of nutrition (which is a pretty way of saying I’m researching nutrition from an interdisciplinary point of view). I come from a philosophy background and am planning to write a thesis on the Philosophy of Biology.

    In case you want to get a brief idea of what I do, you can check my blog at (www.eatingheads.com). I currently have one article translated to English, but others will slowly come. I write mainly in Hebrew 🙂

    Would love to chat with you and exchange ideas.



  5. Pingback: Are Carbohydrates Necessary For Life? FAQs About Low-Carb Diets | HEALTH HACKING

  6. i gave up on following anything endorsed by the usda or fda. they’re indirectly controlled by the processed “food” corporations and pharmaceutical companies, who are only out to make as many billions off of the public as they can. even if it comes at the expense of your health. i just do my best to eat as many raw or slightly steamed/boiled vegetables as i can, with some meat on the side, and stick with natural fats. after i found out that fried and caramelized foods do to your system what sugar does to an automobile engine, i’ve steered clear of them.


    • Anonymous says:

      Hey Arizona! I agree totally with what you are saying. The USDA has for mandate to promote US agricultural products, and it was probably a bad thing that they got involved in nutritional guidelines. The conflict of interests is baffling. Thanks for reading and sharing 🙂


  7. Calvin says:

    So basically eat like traditional Chinese people minus the rice lol
    Observe a Chinese dinner table and you’ll know what it means: 2 types of veggie dishes (usually include legumes), 1 fish/seafood themed, 2 meat themed with one heavily veggie infused (note: we’re not afraid to eat the fat on meat, especially pork!), and finally, some kind of soup (/broth in Western standards) made out of stock (if time allows); fruits are usually eaten separately as desserts.


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  11. Pingback: Is Milk Healthy or Unhealthy? - Healing Oceans Family Wellness Center

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