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The history of the American food pyramid

The first Amercian food pyramid appeared in the 1990s and such a visual model of information still forms the basis of dietary recommendations throughout the world. Such guidelines have evolved in response to wars and the emergence of new diet-related diseases.

American food pyramid

While people all over the world are advised to eat a balanced diet and to drink mainly water, dietary norms vary from one country to another depending on customs, resources and climate. The first recommendations appeared in the United States in 1894, long before the discovery of vitamins and minerals. These recommendations were then amended, eventually taking the form of a food pyramid. The principle of the food pyramid is based on the fact that people are less receptive to nutritional values and is designed to guide them towards a healthy diet. It is divided into several levels and places foodstuffs in food groups based on their essential nutrient content and the culture of the country to which the pyramid applies.

Changes

Shortly after the first dietary recommendations appeared, in 1916, the first dietary guide for young children was produced by the United States Department of Agriculture. It divided food into five groups:

  • milk and meat

  • cereals

  • vegetables and fruit

  • fats/fatty foods

  • sugar/sugary food.

In the 1940s, new recommendations were made, taking account of food shortages during the war and dividing food into seven groups:

  • green and yellow vegetables

  • oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, etc.

  • potatoes, other fruit and vegetables

  • milk and dairy products

  • meat, poultry, fish and eggs

  • bread, flour and cereals

  • butter and margarine

Shortly after the war, the recommendations took the form of four main food groups:

  • the milk group

  • the meat group

  • the fruit and vegetable group

  • the cereal and bread group

This new form of food guide remained in place for approximately twenty years. At the time, heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases were becoming increasingly common and it became necessary to make adjustments in order to take unhealthy food into account. As such, a fifth category was created concerning fats and sugary and alcoholic drinks, to be consumed in moderation.

In 1992, new changes were made to the initial guide, giving it a pyramid shape and showing the variety and proportions of each food group in pictures. In 2005, changes were made to the pyramid to simplify its illustration and accompanying information. The pyramid shape was eventually replaced in 2011 by a round shape symbolising a plate, so that Americans could easily see what proportion of each food group should be on their table every day.