Food Pyramid or Food Plate?
No Matter - Fire USDA; Hire NIH

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The food pyramid is dead and it's about time.  For some reason, people who study nutrition and tell us how to eat, really like food pyramids.  I suppose it makes sense, after all, pyramids are stable.  They sit on their solid base and are virtually impossible to tip over.  

Let's see, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt has been around for 4,600 years or so.  Sounds pretty solid and it should be; it was built over a 20 year period with huge stone blocks weighing about two and a half tons each, all fitted together with perfect precision.

If only we could say the same thing about the food pyramid built by our own U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Their first effort at food pyramid building was in 1992 and stood the test of time all the way to 2005 when it was replaced with a different one.  

The latest one called "My Pyramid" seems to be nothing more than the old pyramid tipped over on its side.  Looks like the USDA food pyramid wasn't very stable, it was easily tipped over.

Miracles Do Happen

Food pyramids are out, food plates are in!  On June 2nd of 2011 the USDA put their pyramids out to pasture and introduced their new "food plate" icon and it appears that they got it right this time. 

The new graphic for USDA food recommendations is shown below and can be accessed on the USDA website at
USDA's ChooseMyPlate food icon, released June 2, 2011

It is expected that consumers will relate better to a plate shaped pie chart instead of the old confusing (and wrong) pyramids.  

The most striking improvement is that the recommendation is now a full 50% fruits and vegetables with the emphasis on the vegetable quadrant.  On the right hand side, the grain portion is slightly larger than the protein section; all very positive. 

The USDA ChooseMyPlate website is a vast improvement over past efforts as well.  It is easy to follow, easy to navigate and has a variety of tools for diet planning and offers some pretty good advice on food choices. 

There is room for improvement on the food recommendations however.  A lot is left up to the consumer to do their own research and make their own healthy choices. 

For example, if you click on the grains section of the plate it opens up to a good discussion of whole grains versus refined grains and identifies common foods in each category BUT at the bottom of the page is the "Key Consumer Message" to make "at least half your grains whole grains". 

What's wrong with making ALL your grains whole grains?  Apparently the justification for refined grains is that they are fortified (enriched) with vitamins and minerals. 

Of course they are since most of the nutrients are destroyed or removed in the refining process so they have to add them back.  The problem is that the nutrients added back are nowhere as good as the original whole food nutrients that were removed and none of the fiber is added back. 

Refined grains are just plain bad; they contribute to the rising statistics of diabetes as well as the obesity epidemic.

Click on the fruit, vegetable and protein sections and each one opens up to a similar discussion of that particular food group; no criticisms on these, all are well done.

At some point it would be nice to see the USDA start placing more emphasis on organic produce; free range, grass fed beef; and cleaner, safer, more humane methods of raising food animals.  It will never happen but it's a nice dream.   

The Bottom Line First

Just in the event someone doesn't want to read to the bottom of this page, it is vital to get the message out on USDA food recommendations right away, whether pyramids or plates.  In big capital letters, THE USDA HAS NO BUSINESS GIVING OUT DIETARY GUIDELINES! 

Why is that you ask?  There are three great reasons. 

  • First is that the USDA is in the business of furthering the business of animal farming, specifically the large industrial animal factory model of farming. They are not in the business of protecting consumers from the output of factory farms unless a few thousand people get sick or drop dead from e-coli or salmonella. Pay attention to what is going on in Europe right now in June 2011; e-coli has mutated into a very dangerous strain and it has the experts scratching their heads. So was it any wonder that the output of big industrial farms, whether it be corn products, factory meat or industrial milk and eggs ended up in the biggest slice of the former food pyramids? With protein being in the smallest section of the new "food plate", maybe the USDA is finally starting to think on its own.
  • Second is that the USDA doesn't draft the dietary guidelines. Typically the committee that drafts the dietary recommendations for the USDA is made up of representatives from big agriculture. People from the beef, poultry, dairy and egg industries aren't exactly unbiased when it comes to healthy choices in diet. It appears that maybe the USDA is starting to show some backbone with the new guidelines. There is no place in government policy making for industry lobbyists, no matter how much money they contribute to a congressman's favorite charity.
  • Third, we have a government institution already in place who is infinitely more qualified to provide nutrition guidelines than the USDA ever will. In addition it really does have the intelligence, honesty, qualifications and real concern for the health of the country's citizens at heart and not the interests of industry trade groups. That would be the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The NIH seems to base its actions on the best science available and would undoubtedly do the same with nutrition recommendations. The interests and profits of big vertically integrated agriculture would not enter the picture, we hope.

  • Ann Cooper, the Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley Unified School District, seems to agree.  She spoke at a 2007 EG Conference on the subject of the National School Lunch Program and why kids are getting sicker and sicker. 

    Her talk was recorded by the TED lecture series and put on the web via a You Tube video.  It is embedded below and is well worth the time to watch and take her recommendations to heart.  She also had a few choice things to say about the food pyramid.

    Now having given the punchline in advance, we can go on to the history and background of the whole food pyramid nonsense and get an appreciation why is was jettisoned.

    What Were They Thinking?

    Looking back, the people in the USDA who worry about our food had good intentions. In 1992 the obesity trend in the U.S. was starting to pick up steam with between 10 and 14 percent of the population being overweight or obese.  What they failed to realize is that they were largely the cause of it. 

    Recall that obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. The USDA was concerned and felt moved to issue dietary guidelines on healthy eating.

    It is also significant to note that by 1992, the low fat diet craze was well entrenched in the U.S. 

    Medical schools were teaching that eating fat causes fat and food companies were rolling out no-fat and low-fat foods as fast as they could.  This was the situation at the time that the first food pyramid was inaugurated.

    The problem was that it was based on fuzzy thinking and flawed science.  Although the glycemic index had been introduced eleven years earlier in Canada, it would be another five years before it came to the U.S.

    The result was that the USDA food pyramid introduced in 1992 was guaranteed to make people fatter.

    1992 Food Pyramid

    The Great Food Pyramid of 1992...
    was Built Upside Down, Sort of!

    The 1992 food pyramid was originally known as the "food guide Pyramid" and was created without any input from the Department of Health and Human Services.  As shown in the graphic above, the bottom layer of the food pyramid was all grain based.

    It sent the message that the foundation of our diet should be bread, cereal, pasta, crackers, rice and any other foods made from milled grain.  The USDA was highly criticized as putting forth dietary guidelines intended to benefit grain producers at the expense of the health of our citizens.

    The nutrition from this type of food is mainly starch, a carbohydrate that is certain to cause a rise in blood sugar with a resulting insulin spike.  In addition, most of the healthy fiber is removed from these grains products during the milling process.

    The problem is that with little fiber present, digestion occurs very quickly resulting in an even more rapid increase in blood sugar.  This scenario will cause stress on the pancreas and leads to the onset of diabetes.

    It is more than coincidence that Since 1992 there has been an epidemic increase in type 2 diabetes.  This is also called "insulin resistant diabetes" as opposed to type 1 diabetes in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. 

    The real tragedy is that more and more children are now falling victim to diabetes and the linkage to diet and obesity is undeniable.

    Vegetables and fruit show up in the second tier of the food pyramid indicating that we can get by on lesser proportions of these healthy foods than the grains.  Dairy and meat is in the third tier with fats and sweets at the very top.

    This is in keeping with the low-fat mentality of the times but it's a mystery why the pyramid builders thought that sweets needed to be included in dietary guidelines.  The candy industry must have had good lobbyists too.

    The "MyPyramid Food Guidance System"

    In all fairness, it must be understood that dietary guidelines aren't something that just sprung up overnight at the USDA. 

    The study of food and nutrition is an ongoing process at the department and has been so since the 1970s when they issued the "national nutritional recommendations".  These recommendations urged moderation in diet to combat chronic disease conditions.

    From there the studies evolved to that of a "total diet" approach in the 1980s.  This took the form of a food wheel and then later became a tabular listing intended to be "a pattern for daily food choices". 

    It was decided that a graphic presentation was superior to a tabular list, thus the 1992 food pyramid guide was born. 

    By the early 2000s, with rising rates of obesity and diabetes, a reassessment and revision of food intake patterns was needed.  The objective was to establish new nutritional goals in line with current nutritional standards for adequacy and moderation. 

    To their credit, this time the input for the food pyramid came from established experts in the field and authoritative panels such as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) and the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine.  The food industry lobbyists were finally shown the door.

    The output of this effort was the "MyPyramid" which was designed to recognize that when it comes to diet, one size does not fit all.  It incorporated interactive on-line tools to craft a proper diet and track its progress.

    New USDA My Pyramid

    How Did They Do It and
    What Does It Mean?

    The Department followed a five step methodology that:

  • Set Estimated Energy Requirement formulas
  • Set Nutrient Goals based on Dietary Reference Intake standards
  • Established Food Groupings based on nutrient content, use in meals, and familiarity
  • Calculated Nutrient Profiles based on a consumption-weighted average nutrient content for foods in each group
  • Determined Food Intake Patterns, an iterative process to identify food group amounts that meet nutrient goals within energy level
  • The USDAs former website carried a graphic called "The Anatomy of MyPyramid" wherein the following messages were

  • the figure climbing the steps was a reminder of the importance of physical activity
  • the narrowing of each food group from bottom to top symbolized moderation
  • the person on the steps symbolized personalization of diet for each individual
  • the widths of each food group stood for proportion, how much food a person should choose from each group
  • the color bands indicated variety and stood for the five food groups and oils
  • the slogan, "Steps to a Healthier You", implied gradual improvement by taking small steps each day
  • The MyPyramid approach was not that big a change from
    the 1992 version of the food pyramid.  It was still overweight in grains but to its credit, fruit and vegetables combined did outweigh the orange grain section. 

    There are more and more nutritionists coming out against milk and dairy, not so much for the dairy products themselves, but for the antibiotics and hormones that are given to the cows and which end up in the end product.  Pure organic milk is great except that it can be difficult to find and is expensive.

    Also the "MyPyramid Food Guidance System" and the on-line tools took a fair amount of study to understand how it was supposed to be used and few people were willing to devote the time much less have the discipline to follow the system.

    What both of these USDA pyramids had in common is that they were both LOW FAT PYRAMIDS! 

    If you care to, navigate to Fad Diets to see what "low-fat" eating has done to our country.

    On the bright side, in the last couple of years, the obesity trend in the U.S. has been leveling out and we can all hope it continues in the right direction.

    ...Or, is the leveling of the obesity trend
    related to an entirely new pyramid?

    With the advent of the glycemic index in Canada in 1981 and its entry to the U.S. in 1997, it is possible that we are starting to see a positive effect on U.S. weight trends.  Unfortunately, new discoveries in dietary science and their adoption into the mainstream seem to move about as fast as a herd of turtles. 

    While the idea of Low Glycemic eating came to the Harvard Medical School in 1997, it took eight more years for it to get the attention of mainstream media.  In March 2005, the low glycemic concept hit the front page of USA Today.

    Even a cursory search of the web will turn up several versions of the food pyramid based on low glycemic eating or healthy eating as some call it.

    The University of Michigan Integrative Medicine has a very busy food pyramid with ten levels; beginning with water at the base and ending with "accompaniments" and personal space at the top.  Fruit and vegetables make up the second tier after water.

    Several websites devoted to a truly healthful way of eating display a four-tier "low glycemic" food pyramid with fruit and vegetables at the base, dairy and meat at the second tier and whole grains at the top.

    Dr. Weil has an "Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid" that is very reflective of low glycemic eating.  It also shows fruit and vegetables at the base but is unique in that it lists dietary supplements at the second tier under the third tier of whole grains, pasta (al dente) and legumes.  In total it has an even dozen layers.

    Then we have the Harvard School of Public Health that has a "Healthy Eating" Food Pyramid with exercise and weight control at the base of the pyramid and fruits, vegetables and oils shown on the second tier.  It has five levels but shows wine and a multivitamin supplement off to the side, outside the pyramid.

    We can probably credit our copyright laws for the proliferation of so many different versions of the low glycemic food pyramid.  For that very reason, none of them will be copied into this website.

    Basically they are all the same but each has to have at least one thing a little different from all the others so as not to be accused of plagiarism. 

    Low Glycemic eating is gaining disciples by leaps and bounds and every school that has a health and nutrition department seems driven to construct their own food pyramid.  We are unlikely to see the end of creative low glycemic pyramids anytime soon.

    Low Glycemic Plus Genetics:
    A Winning Combination!

    The Low Glycemic food pyramid I am most familiar with is from Dr. Steve Nugent who created The Genetic Key Diet and published a book of the same name.  Dr. Nugent takes the science of low glycemic eating to the next level by combining it with one of five metabolic body types, which he labels the "genetic key". 

    He then tailors a low glycemic diet program keyed to each genetic type.  It made such sense to me that I enrolled in his certification course and became a "Genetic Key Certified Coach (GKCC).

    Since I took the course and became a GKCC I will take the liberty of providing a "representative" graphic of Dr. Nugent's pyramid below and give him full credit. 

    Food Pyramid based on Genetic type and Glycemic index

    In summary, the genetic key diet is the one that works and whatever food pyramid or plate icon you decide to follow, just make sure it emphasizes fruit and vegetables and includes whole grain products. 

    If you are struggling with weight problems and have tried everything, then this is the one for you.

    For more in depth information on what the Glycemic Index is all about, click here for a page dedicated to the subject.

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