Origins of MyPlate and Food Pyramid Are Older Than You Think

We frequently use our blog to bust myths and remind ourselves, and you, to double-check your sources! You can learn a lot from odd places. But, a lot of things you read on the internet simply aren’t true. When we see things presented as facts, it’s easy to believe them. And, the internet has made it so that we are pelted with information daily. If you aren’t careful, you can absorb a lot of misinformation!

If you’ve ever dipped your toe into the world of TikTok, you know that there is a lot of bad diet advice on there! So much of it has already been debunked. But a recent TikTok video from registered dietitian Danielle Allen gave many pause. In it, she spoke about the origins of what we now know as MyPlate — the successor to the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid.

Ms. Allen claimed that the guide could be traced all the way back to WWII. People looked into the claim to check, and sure enough, there is a pamphlet put out by the USDA in 1943 that was the first visual guide to what was thought to be a healthy diet. It was called the “Basic Seven.” It was a “National Wartime Nutrition Guide” intended to teach you the seven food groups you needed to eat daily. People at the time lacked variety in their diet, and the pamphlet aimed to solve the problem.

This became incredibly obvious during the second world war when the Army had a great deal of difficulty recruiting conscripts because they were so poorly nourished, and the poor nourishment came from lack of variety in the diet,” Dr. Marion Nestle, a retired professor of nutrition. “They weren’t eating enough vegetables, they weren’t getting enough meat or dairy products. The early food guides were designed to encourage people to eat more of the full variety of American agricultural products.”

According to the pamphlet, the seven food groups were milk, vegetables, fruits, eggs, cereal and bread, butter and, finally, meat, cheese, fish and poultry were put together. The guide was aimed less at trying to find balance and more at just encouraging more variety. And, yes, butter was its own food group. Right after the Great Depression, people were used to living on meager rations of the cheapest foods.

I think of it as a sort of great awakening about the importance of nutrition to total health,” said Dr. Whitney Linsenmeyer, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “There really wasn’t a ton of nutritional research or recommendations that were provided to the public prior to this, but because of the malnutrition that the country experienced during the Great Depression, and because of folks that were going through those medical exams to see if they could be part of the wartime effort abroad, where a lot of those deficiencies were discovered, that prompted the government to recognize the need to put a greater emphasis on nutrition.”

After the war, the “Basic Seven” was changed to the “National Food Guide” but didn’t have portion sizes. In 1956, it was changed to the “Basic Four” with portion sizes for milk, fruits and vegetables, meat and grain products. In 1979, it was changed again to “The Hassle-Free Guide to a Better Diet.” It had a new section on foods to avoid: fat, sweet things and alcohol. In 1984, it was changed to a wheel called “A Pattern for Daily Food Choices” designed for a balanced diet based on moderation. In 1992, we finally got the pyramid we now all recognize immediately.

The pyramid needed some tweaking because it had grains at the bottom without really taking into consideration that if people ate six to 11 servings of grains a day, given the size of grain servings these days, they would put on an enormous amount of weight,” said Dr. Nestle.

In 2011, they released the current visual guide, MyPlate. It doesn’t give you exact amounts or tell you what you should be eating. Instead, it shows you the proportions of your meal that each healthy food group should be — fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. It allows people to work with their own diet and allows for a lot of different cultural variations. It’s the best we’ve had so far. But there is no telling what the future may hold.

An interesting side note to all of this is that another piece of dietary advice comes from WWII. While many people believe that carrots improve night vision, they are wrong. The vitamin A in carrots can promote eye health, but it won’t improve sight in the dark. The British spread propaganda claiming carrots did and that they ate a lot of them, hoping that the German forces would hear it and believe that’s why the British fighter pilots were so good in the dark. In actuality, the Royal Air Force had brand new, secret radar technology on their planes. Not all misinformation comes from the internet, and not everything you see online is untrue! Always check your sources!

Banner image: National Agricultural Library, USDA ARS

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