The food pyramid was designed to offer an easy-to-understand look at healthy eating, but for the average person it’s too simplistic, vague, and sometimes way off. Here’s how food pyramids work and how you can actually use them in your day-to-day eating.
Versions of the Food Guide Pyramid have been around since the late 70s, and an official U.S. Department of Agriculture version rose to common knowledge in 1992, but it’s long been the focus of some controversy, with several updates and alternatives offered over the last decade. Here’s a quick look at the history of the food pyramid and its goals, followed by some tips for how you can actually use it for better eating.
Note: Not interested in the history? Jump straight to how to use the food pyramid for better eating.
A Little Food Pyramid History
The Original Food Pyramid and Its Problems
Above is an image of the original USDA food pyramid, familiar to so many from grade school. The bottom of the pyramid is the carbohydrate group, recommending 6-11 servings per day—an aspect heavily attacked by modern nutritionists. On the next level up, we have the vegetable group on the left (3-5 servings per day) and the fruit group on the right (2-4 servings per day). The penultimate level consists of the dairy group on the left (2-3 servings per day) and the protein group on the right (2-3 servings per day). All the way up top is the fat group, which you’re supposed to avoid whenever possible. The goal of the original food pyramid was to suggest a healthy diet that would be easy for anyone to follow. Here’s an example of three full meals and how they’d stack up on this food pyramid:
- Breakfast: A bowl of cereal with milk, an apple or banana, and two pieces of toast with butter (1 serving of dairy, 1 serving of fruit, 2 servings of carbs, and little fat).
- Lunch: A lean turkey sandwich with cheese, some cut carrots and celery, a bag of mixed nuts, and a plum (2 servings of protein, 1 serving of dairy, 1 serving of carbs, 1 serving of vegetables, and 1 serving of fruit).
- Dinner: Grilled chicken, peas and carrots, salad, and a slice of zucchini bread (1 serving of protein, 2 servings of vegetables, and 1 serving of carbs).
In total that gets you:
- Carbs: 4 servings
- Fruits: 2 servings
- Vegetables: 3 servings
- Dairy: 2 servings
- Protein: 3 servings of protein
This is where you start to see some problems. With this amount of food in a single day, you’d have no trouble getting six servings-worth of carbohydrates. Nonetheless, it only works out to four servings, which is two under the minimum. (More on this later.) On the other side of the equation, this set of meals shows the correct number of servings of protein, but doesn’t account for the additional protein you get through dairy (for example). It doesn’t account for all sorts of things, like the high carbohydrate content found in beans or all the dairy that sneaks its way into so many foods and sauces, homemade or manufactured. It also doesn’t account for many important variables, such as your sex, your height and healthy weight, your daily activity, how different bodies have easier or harder times processing certain foods, and more. The original food pyramid was a nice thought, and it’s not way off, but it’s definitely not a sufficient tool for anybody’s diet.
The New Food Pyramids
The food pyramid has undergone quite a few revisions since it was created, both official and third-party, but we’re going to look at the two most notable.
In April 2005, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to update the food guide pyramid with what you see above. If the original food pyramid felt slightly confusing and incomplete, you now have a fully fledged diet puzzle. This food guide pyramid is actually pretty much the same as the old one, except it’s harder to read. You’ll notice the different colored sections are not all the same size, and that’s because they imply how much each category should make up your daily diet. You’ll see that grains/carbohydrates still make up the largest section and fats make up the smallest (the yellow section, which is very easy to miss).
This pyramid revision is not so much about what’s changed, however, but more about what’s been added. The figure climbing the steps was designed to represent the physical activity necessary to healthy living. Each category also gets a little more specific, such as the grains category suggesting that at least 50% of all grain intake consist of whole grains. Wikipedia offers a full overview of each category. While the graphic, itself, isn’t terribly informative, the descriptions paired with it are (and they’re a little more up-to-date).
The Problems: Here’s where things continue to be problematic. We’ll start with carbohydrates as an example. The USDA food pyramid is based on a 2,000 calorie (per day) diet and recommends about half of those calories come from carbs. (Technically it’s 45-65% for adults, but we’re going with an even 50% for ease of illustration.) The USDA’s daily recommended intake (DRI) of carbohydrates is 130 grams, but if you have about 1,000 daily calories coming from carbohydrates (per day) you’re looking at more along the lines of 250 grams of carbohydrates (1 gram of carbs = 4 calories). Diets recommending lower carb intake generally suggest 80 grams of carbohydrates per day, so some believe that even the lower figure of 130 grams is a bit high. The amount of discussion over this particular figure isn’t so much to suggest that the food pyramid is wrong for everyone, but that a person’s particular needs can vary based on a lot of factors. It’s hard to put stock in something designed to represent everybody in a large, diverse country.
In January of 2003, Scientific American published Rebuilding the Food Pyramid, by Walter C. Willett and Meir J. Stampfer. It was intended to separate the food groups into more accurate categories and make better recommendations for healthier eating based on scientific research. Here’s the basic breakdown:
- Red meat and butter: USE SPARINGLY
- White rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta and sweets: USE SPARINGLY
- Dairy or calcium supplement: 1 TO 2 SERVINGS
- Fish, poultry and eggs: 0 TO 2 SERVINGS
- Nuts and legumes: 1 TO 3 SERVINGS
- Vegetables: IN ABUNDANCE
- Fruit: 2 TO 3 SERVINGS
- Whole-grain foods: AT MOST MEALS
- Plant oils (olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut and other vegetable oils): AT MOST MEALS
Also suggested: “Vitamins for most and alcohol in moderation (unless contraindicated).”
What’s important in this revision is that it distinguishes between types of foods that were previously in the same groupings, but could have very different effects on a person’s diet. For example, white grains are now separated from whole grains, as current findings point to whole grains as the healthier option (but when buying whole wheat, be sure you know what you’re getting). This probably isn’t new information to most people reading this, but it’s of concern when this information is neglected from the official USDA food pyramid.
The biggest fault of any food pyramid, like any set of diet and health guidelines, is that everybody is different, and encounters different eating experiences throughout their day. There are enough similarities to make some general recommendations, but acting on any of those recommendations without factoring in your own specific needs is not the best course of action. Here’s how to take the information you find in a food pyramid (preferably the rebuilt pyramid previously mentioned) and actually use it for better eating.
Focus on Simple Foods
You don’t have to take up a macrobiotic diet to do real tracking of your intake, but when you’re considering what you eat, you should still consider its parts, rather than the whole.
Food pyramids break up macronutrients into more specific categories. Problem is, you don’t necessarily eat a whole zucchini as part of your meal. Take a turkey sandwich, for example. Eating one of those could end up giving you a serving of protein (the turkey), a serving of dairy (a piece of cheese), and a serving (or more) of carbohydrates (the bread), but it also varies if you’re swapping contents and toppings in and out.
If you’re cooking, try to stay on top of everything that goes into that particular dish. It’ll help you know the impact on your body once you eat it, but it’ll also help you understand what can be added or subtracted to make the meal healthier. While you don’t necessarily want to give up cooking, uncooked and unprocessed whole foodscan make a great contribution to a healthier diet.
Understand the Pros and Cons of Each Food
When choosing foods you want to eat, you’re never going to know the full list of nutrients it can be provide. You can, however, get to know the main pros and cons of certain foods. For example, plums are high in fiber, and black beans are high in protein and carbohydrates. A burrito is a good real-world example of why this information is important.
Let’s say you’re building a burrito and you’re deciding what to put inside. You start with a tortilla, add beans, and then add rice (among other potential ingredients). Every one of those items provides a significant number of carbohydrates. Using Chipotle as an example, those three items would provide you with 90 grams of carbohydrates. That’s not an unreasonable amount for a single day, but it’s a lot for a single meal. Knowing which foods are good sources of which nutrients can help you make better decisions when choosing your servings. The food pyramid can be a good guide for choosing those servings, but when you start to get specific you need to know when a food counts as a serving outside of its main category as well.
Factor In Your Body
Your daily calorie intake depends on more factors than being human, but that’s basically all the food pyramids assume. When you’re figuring out how much you need to eat each day to maintain a balanced diet, you should factor in your age, sex, height, weight, level of exercise, and whether or not fat loss is a goal.
Safe diets aren’t always as simple as just reducing calories, and you should consult a doctor before making any extreme decisions about your diet, but there are a lot of ways to find out how to determine your daily calorie intake using those factors. FreeDieting.com provides a handy calorie calculator that makes suggestions on how many calories you should consume per day. It’s good to have your particular needs in mind when you figure out how the serving suggestions on the food pyramid apply to you.
Factor In Your Problems
In theory we digest and process food in the same ways, but a lot of us have allergies and dietary restrictions. Whether your restrictions are voluntary or not, you probably have to substitute a normal item you find on the food group pyramid for something else. It’s important to remember that substitutes can have a major difference in nutritional value and to know what those differences are.
Let’s take lactose intolerance and milk as an example. If you’re replacing milk, your most obvious choices are soy milk and rice milk. Rice milk has significantly higher levels of carbohydrates than regular milk and soy milk often has a lot of sugar added (not always the case, but it’s always worth checking first). If you don’t eat meat and are looking at substitutes, many of them have a very high sodium content that you wouldn’t find in actual meat. This isn’t necessarily worse, just different. It’s important to be aware of the differences in substitutions and not assume you’re getting the exact same nutrients you’ll find in the item it was designed to replace.
How do you adapt general food guidelines to your individual eating needs and habits? Share your tools, tactics, and your own ideas of what the food pyramid looks like for you in the comments.