Information on what people should be eating to become healthy and stay healthy can be found just about everywhere you turn, from tabloids in supermarket checkout lanes, to Internet pop-up ads.


While many of these sources are dubious (and sometimes downright spurious), nutrition guidelines promulgated by national governments are generally accepted as the gold standard. That is, they are widely considered to be authoritative in terms of both the information they contain and the the guidance they offer. The sudden demise of the food pyramid icon as a communicative tool appears to be a casualty of the medium falling short of conveying the whole message. The good news for the pubic is that in terms of conveying messages on nutrition guidelines, the government has stepped up to the plate, literally.

From the Ground Up

The original Food Guide Pyramid was a widely recognized nutrition education tool that translated nutritional recommendations into the types and quantities of food a person should eat each day. Taught to generations of schoolchildren, the building blocks of the pyramid had been rearranged over the years to better reflect advancements in understanding of nutrition and human physiology. The Food Guide Pyramid, for instance, was released by the USDA in 1992, but was replaced in 2005, by MyPyramid. This revamped pyramid for the first time emphasized physical activity rather than just food and beverage intake. The icon’s columns and rows denoted the increasing amounts of each group a person should try to obtain if he or she was larger or more active. It also aimed to become a more usable document in that it included common measurements like cups and ounces while at the same time attempting to steer clear of one-size-fits-all recommendations.

The MyPyramid system was not without controversy, however. One criticism that continued to plague the pyramid paradigm was that it fell short of conveying major messages from The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the document that the food pyramid was aimed to represent. Today, the icons are maintained as archived publications on the USDA Web site, their information and guidance considered out of date.

About the Guidelines

The Guidelines, jointly issued and updated every 5 years by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are aimed at furnishing authoritative advice for Americans ages 2 and up about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease and promote overall health.

What is a “Healthy Diet”, Anyway?

According to the Guidelines, a healthy diet is one that:

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

What’s on MyPlate?

It was the 2010 edition of the Guidelines that spelled the beginning of the end for that rugged symbol of dietary guidelines, the food pyramid. In 2011, amid very little fanfare or promotion, the U.S. government released a new icon that should strike most people as oddly familiar — the dinner plate.

In contrast to the primarily vertical orientation of the pyramid, “MyPlate” shows a placed setting whose centerpiece is a plate divided into horizontal sections, to be filled with more than ¼ vegetables, a bit less than ¼ fruit, ¼ grains (at least half of which should be whole grains) and ¼ lean protein.  A top-down view of a beverage cup (labeled “dairy”) adjoins the plate.

If you had previously visited the Web site, you might notice that many of the tools and features made the transition to the MyPlate update. But the makeover is more than just icon deep: MyPlate’s basic approach is to make it easier for the public to recognize and implement its main points while allowing for health professionals to individualize messages using MyPlate as a jumping off point rather than as an educational tool unto itself.



2. USDA. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “A Brief History of USDA Food Guides.” PDF file.


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