We all learned (some version) of the food pyramid back in elementary school, however long ago that was (don’t look at us!). Sure, there were varying levels of complexity, but other than sugar being somewhere-near-the-top, we’re willing to bet most of you have forgotten a lot about it. More importantly, the food pyramid has been vamped and revamped over the years. After all, the document reflects what we know about healthy eating. Even more importantly: we’ve heard all about fad diets and other trick-your-body-into-being-healthy strategies.
All of this to say: what’s the truth?
A (brief) history of the Food Pyramid
If your education was anything like ours, your teachers likely taught and then retaught things as you got older. (Lookin’ at you physics.) It was a mixture of “you’re more grown-up now, here’s the actual truth of it” and “we’ve adapted as a society, here’s what we know now.” The food pyramid was the poster child for these “gotcha”s.
Not that we’re blaming teachers! (Who are superheroes, if we’re being honest). The American government, and governments worldwide (more on them in a bit) have released and re-released food guides. The first (and most recent!) food guides weren’t even in pyramid form.
According to the USDA’s “A Brief History of USDA Food Guides,” the first food guide was published in 1916. At the time, the focus was on selecting food for young children (yum). From there, we got the slightly-more-informative food pie chart of the 1940s, which focused on seven food groups:
- “Green and yellow vegetables”
- “Oranges, tomatoes, and grapefruit”
- “Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits”
- “Milk and milk products”
- “Meat, poultry, fish, or eggs”
- “Bread, flour, and cereals”
- “Butter and fortified margarine”
© Copyright USDA
This guide also included the delightful tagline “In addition to the basic 7… eat any other foods you want.” (Can we go back to that model?)
Skip to 1956 and the food groups were back down to 4: “Milk group,” “Meat group,” “Vegetable fruit group,” and “Bread cereal group” (no commas, if you’ll believe it). 1977 continued with the same four main food groups, with an additional “group” reminding people to reduce their sweets, fats, and alcohol intake. In 1984, the USDA went back to a wheel. It included serving sizes – for example, they recommended 6-11 servings of breads, grains, and cereals a day, split between “whole grains” and “enriched.”
© Copyright USDA
The Food Pyramid we know and love
Finally we arrive at 1992, when the food “pyramid” was born. This is the one most people are familiar with. The food pyramid told us we should eat bread, rice, pasta, etc the most. Then: veggies and fruits that were kind-of-equal (with a preference for veggies). Next came equal amounts of meat and milk, followed by not-so-many fat and sweets.
This food pyramid was great (in a way) because it gave kids a sense of what they should eat more or less of. But the pyramid didn’t do a good job differentiating healthy vs not healthy options. For example, it was hard to clarify that the larger bread/pasta/cereal chunk was referring to complex carbs, not refined grains. Similarly, when it came to things like “3-5 servings of vegetables,” most kids didn’t know what that meant. What’s a serving?
So the food pyramid was a bit hard to read – it was also representative of your whole day’s meal. Technically one (not us) could argue that a breakfast of fruits and veggies could be offset by a pasta and ice cream dinner. Since the pyramid was also a snapshot of your full day’s meal, it was hard to get a sense of what you should eat for each meal.
© Copyright USDA
The food plate?
In 2011, the USDA (and Michelle Obama!) created MyPlate for a clearer visual image. The new guide represented how many proteins, grains, veggies, fruits, and dairy kids should have per meal. Introducing: MyPlate, a brightly-colored icon, complete with a supporitng website! The website (interactive) features modules for children, adults, and professionals. Check it out!
The MyPlate does what the OG food pyramid struggled to accomplish: clarify what you should eat for a single meal, and what portions look like on a plate. It’s also a good halfway point in the US for unhealthy eating – since there are fewer visible restrictions, it can be easier for children to ease into eating healthy with MyPlate. In fact, the MyPlate website even has a section dedicated to doing just that: “Start Simple with MyPlate.”
More food guides to come
With the help of some #advanced math, we figured out that a food guide comes out every 13 ½ years (on average). If we stick to that, the US will launch a new food guide in 2024 (just in time for the Paris Olympics?).
So the MyPlate likely isn’t the end-all-be-all of American food guides. Food guides differe on recommended portion sizes, what counts as healthy vs not healthy, and what the food groups even are. To be fair, the latter is in large part because of well-documented lobbying during the creation of these guides.
The truth is, the verdict is still out on what exactly is good for you. Most nutritionists agree that sugar and red meat are bad. But beyond that, there are articles that support and contradict many commonly-held beliefs. Proponents of the Mediterranean diet, for example, say that olive oil and wine are good for your heart, but others argue that information is anecdotal or caused by lobbying groups. Some studies have shown that caffeine can be good for you – others say “hmm, not so much.”
We thought we’d dive into food guides throughout the world (*an incomplete list) to take a look at what other countries recommend. Hey! We can all learn from one another.
The food pyramid elsewhere
We aren’t the only country aiming to eat healthy. Several other countries have released their own food pyramid-esque guidelines, in an attempt to help make healthy eating easy. In no particular order, check out a few of the ones we found!
© Copyright gezondleven.be
In 2017, Belgium released their “Practical guide for healthy eating.” The guide is in Flemish, so we apologize if you’re struggling to read it, but essentially the Belgian government inverted the pyramid so the “top” reflects the majority of the foods you should eat – in this case, water! From there, they recommend “meer” (more, thanks Google Translate) veggies, fruits, grains, nuts, oils (which we assume means healthy oils), and tofu. In the second tier they’ve included fish, milk/cheese, eggs, and meat. Finally, they finish their final tier “minder’ (less, thanks again GT!) with butter and read meat. Notably, commonly-known unhealthy foods like fast food, alcohol, salts, and candy are off to the side and excluded from the food pyramid. The Flemish “zo weinig mogelijk” means “as little as possible.”
Oof. But, if we’re being honest, fair enough.
The Japanese government’s latest food guide was released in 2010. The guide, titled “Japanese food guide spinning top” features a (you guessed it) spinning top. Delightfully, the top of the top (the top’s top?) is a glass of water (or tea!), and there’s a stick figure running around the top to illustrate exercise.
From there, similar to the Belgian guide, the Japanese government took a top-down approach. The largest slice of the top represents grains (5-7 servings to be precise). From there, they recommend 5-6 servings of veggies, 3-5 servings of fish, meat, egg, and soy-bean dishes, 2 servings of milk, and 2 servings of fruit. They added a reminder to enjoy other food types – like snacks and sugary beverages, with “moderation.”
We love the creativity of the top and the clever ways the Japanese government has integrated exercise and water into the mix!
Over in the UK, we have the 2016 “Eatwell Guide.” Like the American MyPlate, the British have abandoned the pyramid in favor of a plate, to better illustrate “how much of what you eat overall should come from each food group.” The guide’s biggest “slice” is Fruits & Vegetables, which the British government recommends eating at least 5 portions, and as a variety. Nearly as large as the green Fruits & Vegetables chunk is the “Potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates.” That section has a supplemental reminder to eat wholegrains and avoid added fat, salt, and sugar. The British round out their Eatwell Guide with sections for “Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, and other proteins” (good on you, UK, for recognizing that protein comes from a variety of sources!), “Dairy and alternatives,” and “Oil & spreads.” Similar to Belgium’s guide, they have a note off to the side recommending that users eat sweets and fast foods “less and in small amounts.”
Brb, dreaming of ice cream.
© Copyright The Australian Nutrition Foundation Inc, 3rd edition, 2015
Back to good old pyramids, Australia created the Healthy Eating Pyramid in 2013. And to be honest, they’ve answered one of our biggest qualms with the original US “food pyramid” – it wasn’t a pyramid! Thank you, Australia, for honest branding. #blessed
In their “3D” model, Australia starts with water, herbs, and spices at the bottom. Interestingly, they’ve added verbs to these recommendations – “choose water” (instead of sugary drinks?) and “enjoy herbs and spices” (with impunity?). From there, their bottom layer is actually fruits (a little) and veggies (a lot!). In the second tier, find grains (which at least look like whole grains), then milk & cheese (and dairy-free alternatives) as well as lead meats and legumes. At the top of their pyramid, they feature healthy fats. The Australian pyramid doesn’t highlight fast food, they do add a note to “limit salt and added sugar.”
Though the pyramid is very clear and the images are easy to understand, the image doesn’t include serving sides or suggestions. But it’s pretty, so we’re counting it as a win.
© Copyright Chinese Nutrition Society
China’s “Dietary guidelines for Chinese restaurants” foregoes the typical western pyramid in lieu of a food pagoda. Originally released in 1989, the Chinese government updated in in 2016. Like the Australian and Belgian food guides, the very bottom of the pagoda features a glass of water, with a note to aim for 1500-1700ml. From there, the first layer of the pagoda features cereals, potatoes, whole grains, and mixed beans. Next up are veggies and fruits, then meat, poultry, eggs, and “aquatic produce.” In the second to last layer the pagoda features dairy, soybeans, and nuts, and then the top features salt and oil. Off to the side, they illustration of a person exercising cements that part of a healthy diet is regular exercise.
The Chinese food pagoda includes recommendations of how many grams of each product users should eat. We will note, however, that it’s unclear if these recommendations are per meal or per day – but we do love the pagoda spin on the classic western food pyramid.
This is by no means an incomplete list – we’re just trying to illustrate that there are various ways of saying “eat healthy” for every generation and country.
…So we thought we’d say it too. But eating healthy is more than nailing a certain number of grams of fish per day/week/year – it’s also more than “only” eating whole grains. Combined with fad diets, exercise strategies, and cleansing practices, there’s no doubt we’ve seen so much variation.
So which one is it, really?
The goal of any given food pyramid/guide is to eat healthy, right? But what happens when you add diet, diet-specific, and health cleanses into the mix? How does a gluten-free person navigate the “grains” category in a healthy fashion, for example? Do you have to hit the pyramid every day for it to work its best? Humans are, after all… only human.
From all of our extensive research, from the history of USDA food guides to food guides around the world, we’ve come to the conclusion that, though healthy eating may vary from country to country and year to year, what matters is being mindful of what you’re eating. Forcing yourself to eat to a certain standard or never allowing a “cheat” if you’re on a strict diet is actually worse for your health. The best thing you can do is make good choices, drink good water, and eat good food.
Simplify healthy eating with Chewse!
With Chewse, we make it possible for you to get great, healthy meals to your office that fit any food pyramid or plate you see fit to follow. Each Chewse meal comes with a salad, a main protein (dietary restrictions accounted for!) and at least one side. At Chewse, we embrace all dietary preferences, and we’re pros at building menus with your office’s dietary needs in mind.
Our catering operations specialists also set up the food to maximize your health. Salad always comes first, so you can get those greens on your plate before the more (tantilizing? Tempting? dangerous?) foods. Follow up with some veggie-rich sides, and finish off with some proteins.
Tempted? See Chewse in action in your office – sign up today!