Dear Dietitian – Why have nutrition guidelines changed over the years?
I’m familiar with the food pyramid and five food groups used to help guide food choices over the years. I see some older references to seven food groups. What was this about, and why have we changed things over the years?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published nutrition guidelines since 1894. It has changed over the years, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1943, there were the “Basic 7” food groups. In the 1950s, there were the “Basic Four”; the 90s brought us the Food Guide Pyramid. Finally, in 2011 MyPlate was developed with five food groups: protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy (1). The changes over the years were basically over how to best present these guidelines. It is difficult to present every single piece of dietary information in one illustration.
The purpose of the nutrition guidelines is to educate consumers on basic healthy eating. MyPlate provides a simple icon to illustrate what your plate should look like. It’s simple: fruits and vegetables should take up half the plate; the other half should be filled with protein and grains. A serving of dairy is shown on the side (3).
Of course, you can never please all the people all the time, and MyPlate has not gone without criticism. Some say protein isn’t needed, that people understand what foods have protein. I disagree. Protein is a major nutrient and deserves to be there. Others claim the icon has been influenced by the power of politics. I can’t speak to that; politics is not my game. But I can tell you that ketchup is not a vegetable. Neither is pizza. Still others disagree with dairy being on the icon, but osteoporosis currently affects over 10 million Americans (2), and we need three servings of calcium-rich foods each day. If you prefer a vegetarian source, fortified almond milk is a great choice.
Education is only one step towards helping people change their eating habits. It’s a multi-factorial task, and it’s complicated. We like our food, and this is the land of plenty! Simply put, change is hard! First off, people must believe a change will benefit them, as in “Don’t smoke because it increases your risk of cancer.” Secondly, we must be motivated to continue the change. When we actually feel better, when we see physical changes in the mirror, or when the doctor commends us on lower cholesterol levels, we can accept that this change is good and will be more likely to continue it.
In the meantime, if Americans sat down to two out of three meals a day, five of seven days a week, and their plates are half-filled with fruits and vegetables—that would be success!
Until next time, be healthy!
- History of USDA nutrition guidelines (Feb.9, 2020). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_USDA_nutrition_guides
- National Osteoporosis Foundation. “NOF Releases Updated Data Detailing the Prevalence of Osteoporosis and Low Bone Mass in the U.S. (June 2, 2014) Retrieved from https://www.nof.org/news/54-million-americans-affected-by-osteoporosis-and-low-bone-mass/
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. ChooseMyPlate.gov. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/resources/myplate-graphic-resources