Who Built the Food Pyramids?

Elementary school classroom decorators got it right. I am still impressed by the amount of information that can be distilled into a two-by-three poster: the key players in the American Revolution, the anatomy of the solar system, basic hygiene, all squeezed into bite-sized, easily-digestible chunks. In many ways, I am sorry to have grown up, as I feel that my college professors have dramatically overestimated my appetite for information. Just the hors d’oeuvres, please.


Great advice to this day!

It was through these posters that I came to be familiar with that majestic and colorful wonder of architecture: the food pyramid. A hearty, grainy foundation supports a rainbow of vitamin-rich garden treasures, followed by savory, protein-filled meats “and alternatives” sharing a tier with cheese and milk, and, at the peak, the “undesirables”, all compiled into a handy review of the USDA dietary caste system.

The food pyramid was first published in Sweden in 1974. Its original purpose was to introduce a guideline for consuming “Good wholesome food at reasonable prices.” This explains the wide base of affordable grains and potatoes with luxurious meats and fish placed farther up on the ladder.


The food pyramid was finally released in the United States when the US Department of Agriculture introduced it in 1992. The USDA food pyramid has been reworked multiple times throughout its lifespan (even changing shapes, its current form being the circular MyPlate). The food pyramid replaced the “four food groups”, which had been in use since the 1950s. The four food groups at the time were milk, meat, breads and cereals, and vegetables and fruits. (Fun fact: the USDA has waffled on its number of recognized food groups, which have ranged from four to eleven.)


Varying economic situations throughout history have prompted changes in USDA food guides. The department introduced four different food plans at varying cost levels in response to the Great Depression. After all, the purpose of the guides was to advise dietary habits among Americans; in order to encourage healthy diet on a widespread scale, healthy choices had to be leveraged with the amount of money the average citizen could reasonably spend on food.


The earliest American food guide was published in 1894 by Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater. In his 1904 publication, Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food, he “advocated variety, proportionality and moderation; measuring calories; and an efficient, affordable diet that focused on nutrient-rich foods and less fat, sugar, and starch” (Wikipedia, History of USDA nutrition guides). Even before the discovery of vitamins in 1910, Dr. Atwater seemed to have a pretty good grasp of nutrition.


The Basic 7 chart was introduced in 1943 in response to World War II rationing. In 1946, this was cut down to a Basic 4. Butter and Margarine were removed as a food group (which seems obvious to modern readers, but it was important to get cheap sources of fat to stay full while rationing), and groups one, two, and three were combined into “fruits and vegetables.” In another move that would never be seen in nutritional guidelines today, other foods were listed along with the basic 4, which included “butter, margarine, salad dressing and cooking oil, sauces, jellies and syrups.” These additional foods were said to “satisfy appetites.” Today, such additions are expected, but never advocated.


USDA guides have been “criticized as not accurately representing scientific information about optimal nutrition, and as being overly influenced by the agricultural industries the USDA promotes.” In fact, adoption of the pyramid was delayed by the meat and dairy industries, who balked at the placement of their foods near the top of the pyramid, which they thought made them out to be “unhealthful”.

The first food pyramid suggested to the USDA in 1992 featured fruits and vegetables at the biggest group rather than breads. However, the grain, meat, and dairy industries (which are subsidized by the USDA) overturned the chart, suggesting that this would lead many Americans to buy significantly less meat, milk, and bread. Louise Light, the original food Pyramid composer, said of the revised chart, “it could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.”



One of the earliest known nutrition guides is contained in the Ancient Greek Hippocratic Corpus. It advises citizens to avoid vegetables in winter and “restrict liquids to, if anything, strong wine” (Wikipedia, List of nutrition guides). Another early nutrition guide was advocated by Sun Simiao, a Chinese physician who proposed that healthy eating could combat disease.

There is so much content relating to early nutrition guides (and far too much to fit in one post); I would recommend doing some searching to see what else is out there. Not only is it amazing to read about the strange dietary practices advocated by cultures throughout history, it’s amazing to read about how insightful some of these early promoters of healthy eating were.


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