From Food Wheels to MyPlate: A Brief History of U.S. Food Guides

For decades, food guides have helped promote healthy eating patterns for Americans. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, MyPlate, with its easy-to-follow graphic and generalized recommended portions of each food group within it, is the latest iteration. There have been others, each building on the latest nutrition research and science.

As MyPlate celebrates a milestone, take an historic trip and discover the evolution of governmental food guidance, how staff from Nutrition On Demand have helped shape and communicate this guidance, and other surprises along the way.

“The Evils of Overeating Are Sure to Appear”

Our first stop is in the late 1800s, when Americans first received some insight and guidance on the connections between their bodies and food. According to the article “The History and Future of Dietary Guidance in America” in the journal Advances in Nutrition, much of the credit goes to Wilbur O. Atwater, a USDA chemist. His studies highlighted food digestibility, essential nutrients, and foods that meet the body’s metabolic needs. Following Atwater’s research, the first federal dietary recommendations were issued in the mid 1890s. 

“Unless care is exercised in selecting food, a diet may result which is one-sided or badly balanced,” said Atwater. “The evils of overeating are sure to appear, perhaps as excessive fatty tissue, general debility, or actual disease.”

Throughout the early 20th century, federal guidance focused on certain foods’ roles in disease prevention and overall food safety at home since food-borne illnesses were on the rise. By the 1930s, direct correlations between consuming certain nutrients and health were identified and highlighted to the public. For instance, early publications focused on calcium and phosphorus and their role in bone and teeth development, states the Advances in Nutrition article.

During World War II, federal food guidance was centered on supporting the war effort. The government promoted canning, rationing, and planting community and residential gardens to supplement rations while promoting patriotism. It also encouraged to “make fats go further” by storing any leftover from frying, states the Advances in Nutrition article. In fact, butter and margarine were one of the components of the “Basic 7” food groups wheel diagram making its debut in the 1940s. Rather than placing all vegetables into a category, green and yellow vegetables had its own group while “potatoes and other vegetables” were in another. Serving sizes weren’t highlighted, but the government did promote healthy weight maintenance by equaling the calories a person eats and expends.

The Daily Food Guide was developed in the 1950s and scaled down the seven groups to four: milk; meat; vegetables and fruit; and bread and cereal. The guide did include serving sizes. 

Wheels, Pyramids, and Plates

Prior to the initial launch of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980 that has since been updated every five years, there was the Dietary Goals for Americans. Released by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, these goals helped correlate proper nutrition with the overall health of Americans. Recommendations and values were established to reduce consumption of certain foods and increase others, and an updated “Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide” was established. The guide included the four groups from the Daily Food Guide plus a fifth group recommending Americans to limit their intake of fats, sweets, and alcohol. Some groups expressed concerns about the science behind the recommendations in the Dietary Goals. The government obtained additional help from the scientific community and other governmental entities, and the Dietary Guidelines were born.

Its first edition in 1980 focused on seven principles, many of which are still promoted today, such as “avoid too much sugar and sodium.” Based on recommendations found in the Dietary Guidelines, the American Red Cross and USDA teamed up to produce the Food Wheel Guide in the mid 1980s. It included wedges highlighting serving sizes and basic examples of foods within certain groups.

The wheel concept was expanded and transformed into the Food Guide Pyramid that debuted in the ’90s, starting with a large base (bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group) and working its way up to the pyramid’s smaller tip (fats, oils, and sweets). In total, five food groups were highlighted and segmented to promote variety and dietary proportions: the aforementioned grain group; fruits; vegetables; milk, yogurt, and cheese group; and the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts group. A simplified, pyramid graphic—called MyPyramid—debuted along with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. It included the image of a person climbing stairs to promote physical activity and gradual nutrition improvement (“steps to a healthier you” was the slogan). Americans were encouraged to get personalized nutrition recommendations on the MyPyramid site.

This personalization carried over into MyPlate, which debuted in 2011. A simplified graphic of a plate that includes fruit, vegetable, grain, and protein wedges, with a small, adjacent circle highlighting the dairy group. The icon gives viewers a generalized sense of healthy eating using a familiar mealtime symbol. As was the case with MyPyramid, the MyPlate website gives individualized recommendations for serving sizes and food choices based on age, sex, height, weight, and physical activity level.

Both Shelley Maniscalco, Nutrition On Demand’s founder and CEO, and Tricia Psota, NOD’s managing director, held roles at the USDA tied to the policy and promotion of the Dietary Guidelines as well as the formation and communication of MyPlate. As Shelley says,  “These guides over time have been pivotal in showing Americans how to eat more healthfully. As the public and private sectors work together to advance diet quality and healthy eating behaviors now and into the future, it will be important to support individuals and families in building healthy plates based on their own personalized preferences, cultural foodways, and dietary restrictions.”

Want to see the evolution of the U.S. food guides? Visit this site from USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Curious about food guides from other countries? Check out this site from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade working as a journalist/communications specialist. 

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