The History of American Nutrition Guidelines

The History of American Nutrition Guidelines

Our understanding of what we eat, as well as, how much we eat, has changed over the decades. Sometimes, those changes were beneficial in the long run. Other times, there are changes that make things more confusing. The important thing, however, is that we do the best we can, and learn from our mistakes. Because if we know how to adequately reflect on our attitudes and nutritional habits, we can live longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives. So, today, we are going to look into our ever-evolving attitude about nutrition by glancing at the history of the food pyramid. This way, we can look at how far we have come and possibly look at where we are going.


The first dietary recommendation for public nutrition was published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. W.O. Atwater, the first director of the Office of Experiment Stations was responsible for publishing and distribution it for the American public.  The bulletin itself does have a few good points. For example, it emphasizes the importance of variety, proportionality, and moderation in the daily diet. It even outright warns the general public about obesity or excessive weight gain from overeating.

The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear perhaps
in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general
debility, perhaps in actual disease.


The earliest draft, while a good first step for addressing dietary guidelines was not without its flaws. For starters, the creation process of the bulletin was intentionally the creation of a guideline for “American males”. This creates a rather narrow target audience for something with the intention of public release.  Also, this bulletin was created before the discovery of essential vitamins and minerals in 1912. The result of this timing leads to an emphasis on a diet based on the content of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and mineral matter (ash).

Overall, this sets the stage for nutritional guidelines, but it is no better than the first draft of anything else. It would have needed fine-tuning eventually.


nutrition, basic 7Atwater’s bulletin was further refined into a set of public guidelines for children by the USDA. Caroline Hunt, a home economics expert and nutritionist at the time, assisted in co-authoring a nutrition guide with the intent to provide mothers with the knowledge of five food groups. These five food groups included: vegetables and fruits, dairy combined with proteins, cereals, sugars, and fats. The emphasis was that one thing in the group could substitute for another within the same category. For instance, rice could substitute for bread, but it couldn’t substitute a vegetable. It was important to have something in each group daily according to Hunt.

While vitamins were technically discovered at the time, there wasn’t enough knowledge for any implementation quite yet.

It was a step in the right direction with the categorization of food groups, but we have since took notice that sweets today are not much of a necessity.


1940’s – 70’s

The eve of World War 2 was the beginning of a major shift in what would be considered nutritional standards. Nutrition concerns fell under the radar of President Franklin Roosevelt, who was looking into applying the knowledge of vitamins and minerals to the American nutrition both in the public and military sphere. The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, were: protein, iron, calcium, vitamin A/D, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin C.

This information became reorganized into the “Basic 7” food groups for the American public to understand and implement, especially during wartime rationing.

However, after the end of the war, this made nutrition a more complicated than helpful.  With the number of food groups, no guidance with usage of fats and sugars,  and the lack of serving size information, there was a need for modification.

The mid-fifties saw a recategorization of food groups down to a “basic four”, which lasted for the next two decades. Serving sizes have yet to be introduced in this period.


1990’s – 2000’s

nutrition, food pyramid

Nutritional guidelines saw another shift with the introduction of a fifth food group along with the other four that were around since the 70’s. The purpose of this introduction was to keep the public aware of their oil, sugar, and alcohol intake.  From there, the dietary standards changed into a different visual metaphor altogether. The pyramid.  The pyramids worked as a visual aid to guide the public on how many servings of a food group they should have daily.

There was some controversy among nutritional experts that noticed that there was far too much meat, grains, and dairy, and not enough fruits and vegetables when it came to recommended servings. This criticism was due to a suspected conflict of interest between the USDA and heavily subsidized food industries.

The pyramid iconography continued into 2005, where a more visually abstract image replaced the more distinctly categorized pyramid. The designer of the pyramid added an illustration of a climber on top of a staircase to illustrate the importance of exercise with servings represented to scale in a pie chart format.



The USDA removed the pyramid entirely and introduced a new concept, a plate. The plate depicts the serving sizes of each portion that should be for every meal. Compared to the pyramid, the

myplate, nutrition

plate appears more comprehensive to people who try to understand serving sizes. It also introduces the concept of the largest serving intake being fruits and vegetables as opposed to refined grains and meats.

However, in spite of its better comprehension, there is still some criticism from nutritionists. Walter C. Willett, explained it to a Harvard Journal on the day it was released, “Clearly MyPlate will be better than MyPyramid. But the most important issues are in the details that are not captured by the icon. Which type of grain? What sources of proteins? What fats are used to prepare the vegetables and the grains?”

Harvard Health also pointed out the faulty logic that comes from the visual guide,” MyPlate doesn’t show that whole grains are better for you than refined, rapidly digested grains, or that fish and beans are better protein choices than red meat. It doesn’t give any guidance that eating more unsaturated and omega-3 fats are good for health, as is cutting back on saturated fats from meat and dairy.”



We still have a long way to go, but I think America is taking great strides. The more we know, the better we do in the future, so the best thing we can do is keep moving forward and learn from our mistakes.