History of the USDA Food Pyramid

- POSTED ON: Dec 08, 2012


While researching some recent history on the timeline of food events,
I ran across the fact that the Food Pyramid wasn’t even created until 1992.

 This surprised me, because somehow in the vague recesses of my mind, it was something taught to me during the early 1950s in the lower grades of elementry school, and I thought I recalled it being the subject of discussion in an undergraduate sociology college class in the late 1970s. However, after a bit more research I learned the following information.

USDA Food Pyramid History

The USDA Food Pyramid has its origins in the practice of agricultural chemistry in the late 1800s. Wilbur Olin Atwater, Ph.D., an agricultural chemist who founded and directed the Office of Experiment Stations (OES) for the USDA, wrote the first dietary guideline,

Atwater was a researcher, and received government funds to build a large respiration calorimeter for studying human metabolism,

In 1902, Atwater published a USDA Farmer’s Bulletin which emphasized the importance of variety, proportionality, and moderation in healthful eating in the diets of American males. In his research, he determined that the calorie was a means to measure the efficiency of a diet. He calculated that different types of food produced different amounts of energy, and he stressed the importance of a cheap and efficient diet that included more proteins, beans, and vegetables, and to limit the intake of fat, sugar and other starchy carbohydrates.

1917, the first USDA food guide appeared. It was titled How to Select Foods and was written by Caroline Hunt, a nutritionist for the USDA. It ignored Dr. Atwater’s advice to limit fat and sugar intake, and instead emphasized newly discovered vitamins and minerals. Foods recommended came in 5 groups:

milk and meat
vegetables and fruit
fats and fatty foods
sugars and sugary foods

There were changes to this basic guide to help families during the wartime rationing, but it wasn’t until 1940, when the first "Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA)" was released from the National Academy of Sciences, that the USDA changed its recommendations again.

In 1943, it created the National Wartime Nutrition Guide, and then revised it in 1946 as the National Nutrition Guide. This guide offered 7 food groups which supported the RDA requirements:

Milk and milk products
Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas and nuts
Bread, flour and cereals
Leafy green and yellow vegetables
Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Citrus, tomato, cabbage, salad greens
Butter, fortified margarine

During this time, many other guides were issued with contradictory advice. In 1956, because of the confusion, the multiple food group recommendations were revised to the "Basic Four" recommendation. Serving size recommendations were also added and the revisions were published in a booklet titled Essentials of an Adequate Diet..Facts for Nutrition Programs. The 4 food groups in this document included:

Fruits and vegetables
Grain products


In 1967, CBS aired a documentary on TV, Hunger in America which reported the extent of hunger and malnutrition among low income groups in the United States. This show galvanized the American people into demanding the expansion of federal food assistance programs. In 1968, the Senate appointed Senator George McGovern to chair the "Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs" with the goal of wiping out hunger and malnutrition in the US.

By 1969, the committee had succeeded in wiping out the US malnutrition issue, but wanting to secure further funding, it began expanding into other areas of health and nutrition.

McGovern and several members of his staff had become familiar with the Ancel Keys' influence on the American Heart Association, which was proposing that fat and cholesterol consumption should be lowered for better heart health, even though the link between the two had never been proven in any scientific study. With this focus, the creation of today's USDA Food Pyramid began.

As Gary Taubes writes in his article The Soft Science of Dietary Fat:

"It was Senator George McGovern's bipartisan, nonlegislative Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs--and, to be precise, a handful of McGovern's staff members--that almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country and initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma.”

In January 1977, after listening to the testimony of Ancel Keys and other doctors and scientists intent on promoting the unsupported Dietary Fat-Heart hypothesis, the Committee published the "Dietary Goals for the United States" recommending that all Americans reduce their fat, saturated fat and cholesterol consumption, and increase their carbohydrate consumption to 55-60% of daily calories."

Gary Taubes writes about this historic event:

“Then resident wordsmith Nick Mottern, a former labor reporter for The Providence Journal, was assigned the task of researching and writing the first "Dietary Goals for the United States." Mottern, who had no scientific background and no experience writing about science, nutrition, or health, believed his Dietary Goals would launch a "revolution in diet and agriculture in this country." He avoided the scientific and medical controversy by relying almost exclusively on Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Mark Hegsted for input on dietary fat. Hegsted had studied fat and cholesterol metabolism in the early 1960s, and he believed unconditionally in the benefits of restricting fat intake..”

Upon release of the guidelines, the cattle, egg, and dairy industries went ballistic. Congress was telling people that animal products were bad for health!

The intense pressure from these industries forced the committee into revising the report in late 1977. But the damage had been done, and American meat, egg and milk consumption continued to fall.

Because the goals of this document were so different, the USDA did not adopt them at first. In 1980, the USDA partnered with the Health and Human Services department to issue the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which eventually became the USDA Food Pyramid.

During the 1980s, several other guidelines and reports were issued by various agencies. These included the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health, and the National Research Council’s Diet and Health Report. Both reports were heavily influenced by the low fat proponents.

The USDA leaned heavily on these reports in the revision of its USDA Food Pyramid guidelines in the early 1990s. Interestingly, the actual graphic for the USDA food pyramid came from Sweden.  In 1988, several USDA scientists obtained copies of Sweden’s food pyramid at an international conference, and used it as a graphical basis for a new guideline in the US.

The result was the 1992 USDA Food Pyramid. This graphical depiction of the USDA’s guidelines has been the source of government food advice since then.

The USDA revised the food pyramid in 2010. The panel of "experts" advising the USDA were all proponents of the low fat, high carb diet. The research supporting a lower carb diet and reduced grain consumption was not reviewed, and the pyramid continues to recommend the products that benefit agricultural and food processing interests.

The latest development in the USDA Food Pyramid history saw the pyramid dismantled in favor of the new and "easier" to understand USDA "My Plate”

Although the graphic has changed, the same dietary advice is still being offered.


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Existing Comments:

On Dec 08, 2012 jethro wrote:
I find it disturbing that the government recommends - and forces as much as they can - a dietary paradigm that has little or no scientific basis.

On Dec 08, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Yes, Jethro. It is disturbing.

On Dec 08, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
The Food Pyramid has always been a sore subject with me. I was litening to an Olde Time Radio Show awhile back and in the 20s 30s on childrens serial shows like Jack Armstrong, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Lone Ranger etc. the cereal companies, bot Kellogs and Post were running rampant with ads boldly stating that "Uncle Sam wants you kids to be big and strong, so eat Cheerios every morning for breakfast". America was being brainwashed by the grain industry because it was cheap food and easy to produce. There was not enough meat/beef etc. to feed a rapidly growing America at the time so the 'Government' allowed this to happen. Disgusting! Bet you don't know how Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice became BIG sellers even though they had to be doused with plenty of milk, and a large quantity of sugar just to make them even palatable? I do....

On Dec 08, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Yes John. On the one hand, all my life I've been told NOT to allow myself to be fat, ... and on the other hand ... ALL the While, marketing, the nation, medical experts, teachers, friends, family, and society in general also tell me to buy more and eat more of those "healthy" (and "unhealthy") foods that have been MAKING me fat. Of course, you know how it goes, because you've also spent many years alive in this culture.

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