The Food Pyramid… Scheme?

The Food PyramidThe Food Pyramid

The food pyramid was introduced by the USDA in 1992, revised in 2005, and replaced in 2011. Nearly all public schools (99 percent), between the grades of Kindergarten through Eighth grade, offer nutrition education somewhere within the curriculum.1 If you have ever been exposed to this pyramid, then you are part of the 99 percent. Of course, whether you decided to follow its’ guidelines or be a nutrition rebel at the time is a completely different argument.

The food pyramid is divided into the following serving sizes for each food group:

USDA Food Pyramid

Click to Enlarge

Fats, oils, and sweets group: Use sparingly

Milk group: 2-3 servings

Meat group: 2-3 servings

Fruit group: 2-4 servings

Vegetable group: 3-5 servings

Grain group: 6-11 servings

These recommended serving sizes are for an approximate 2500 calorie diet. The serving sizes decrease between each group starting from the grains group to the fats, oils, and sweets; hence, the formation of the pyramid.

Problems With the Food Pyramid

Problems With the Food PyramidAlthough the basic concepts of these guidelines are easy to remember, if one did attempt to follow the pyramid as it was intended, it would be rather difficult because the following types of questions would arise:

“What is a serving?”

“How am I supposed to remember all of the different serving sizes for every different type of food?”

“What do I do if I’m at a restaurant?”

“Am I supposed to pull out a scale and a set of measuring cups from my pocket during each meal?”

…and so on.

Another problem is the fact that not all foods are created equally—even if they happen to be in the same food group. Take a look at the grains group. It is recommended to consume 6-11 servings of grains and one serving is defined as one slice of bread. If someone were to consume 11 slices of white bread in one day, would it be the same as if someone else consumed 11 slices of 100% whole grain bread?

The answer is no. Research shows that 100% whole grain bread has a glycemic index that is around 30%-40% lower than traditional white bread (glycemic index is a measurement carried out on foods containing carbohydrates and their impact on blood sugar, the scale ranges from 1-100). 100% whole grain bread has a glycemic index of about 51 whereas traditional white bread has a glycemic index of about 71.2

Fun fact! If you thought that whole wheat bread was a healthy alternative to traditional white bread you may need to sit down for this. What comes as a surprise to many is the fact that there is no significant difference between the glycemic index of white bread and whole wheat bread. Whole wheat bread was found to have a glycemic index of about 71.

This example was for the grains group, but similar problems exist for other food groups as well.

One Less Problem Without You

food pyramid cows milkWhen the pyramid was introduced, it was believed to be an accurate representation of nutritional guidelines, but that was based on information present at that time. Compared to the amount of data we have today, nutrition research was scarce. As caloric intake increased throughout the years, nutrition research progressed as well. Now that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, nutrition research has become one of the most prominent issues our society faces today.3

That is why the food pyramid does not distinguish between fats. Fats, oils, and sweets are lumped together at the top of the pyramid, which implies that people should avoid consuming these types of foods as much as possible. However, research has proven that fats are necessary for normal bodily functions i.e. transport of fat soluble vitamins. In addition, unsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seafood, and avocados can potentially aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol and lower blood sugar.4,5

The pyramid was also criticized for its lack of clarity. The minimum and maximum limits for servings vary greatly. Going back to the bread example, what does 6-11 servings mean? It is easy to see that six servings and eleven servings from the grains group have a difference of around 500 calories (given a slice of bread is equal to 100 calories). 500 calories may not seem like a lot, but that is already 20% of the recommended daily intake.

In the pyramid, milk exists as its own group, which would lead people to assume that it is necessary to drink milk every day; however, many cultures around the world stop drinking milk after childhood. Most mammals are only able to digest milk when they are young. The LCT gene promotes the production of the enzyme lactase (used in milk digestion), but is only active until weaning.7 Humans and Western culture are strange in that drinking milk into adulthood is accepted as the norm. The things animals would say about us if they could talk…

With the progression of nutrition research, the food pyramid was retired after 19 years and replaced with MyPlate.

The New Food Pyramid is a Plate?

usda myplate

People that grew up learning about the pyramid remember it and believe it to be true. This should be expected because if you shop for groceries once or twice a week and see pyramids printed on packaging for 19 years you will most likely come to accept it—if not through true belief then subconscious brainwashing.

MyPlate was released by the USDA in 2011 and is the most recent nutritional icon used to help consumers think about what a healthy plate should look like during each meal in order to promote healthier food choices.

The plate is divided into five sections: 30% vegetables, 20% fruits, 30% grains, 20% protein, and a small portion of dairy on the side. We live in a very fast-paced society where nobody has time for anything, so MyPlate is the perfect way to make sure you and those you care about are consuming the right quantity of each food group without taking up too much time. All you have to do is simply look at the dish: Half of the plate contains fruits and vegetables? Check. Other half of the plate contains grains and proteins? Check. Finally, throw in a small yogurt or other dairy product of choice and you’re done.

If you want some more information about MyPlate, feel free to visit They also have a lot of other free resources used for dietary assessment and nutrition education as well.


1. Celebuski C, Farris E. Nutrition Education in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics; 1996. [June 17, 2013].
2. Slavin  JL Whole grains and human health. Nutr Res Rev 2004;1799- 110doi:10-1079/NRR200374
3. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of Childhood and Adult Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA.2014;311(8):806-814. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.732.
4. Hu, FB; Manson, JE; Willett, WC (2001). “Types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: A critical review”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 20 (1): 5–19. doi:10.1080/07315724.2001.10719008.
5. Pelkman CL, Fishell VK, Maddox DH, Pearson TA, Mauger DT, and Kris-Etherton PM.“Effects of moderate-fat (from monounsaturated fat) and low-fat weight-loss diets on the serum lipid profile in overweight and obese men and women”. Am J Clin Nutr 79(2): 204–212.PMID 14749224. Retrieved 2011-04-18.
6.  Venti, Carol (2002). “Modified Food Guide Pyramid for Lactovegetarians and Vegans”(PDF). J Nutr 2002; (American Society for Nutritional Sciences) 132 (5): 1050–1054.PMID 11983836. Retrieved 2011-06-20.
7. Kuokkanen M, Kokkonen J, Enattah NS, Ylisaukko-Oja T, Komu H, Varilo T, Peltonen L, Savilahti E, Järvelä I: Mutations in the translated region of the lactase gene (LCT) underlie congenital lactase deficiency. Am J Hum Genet 2006, 78:339-344.

Author Profile: Joanna Lo

Joanna graduated with a B.S. in Nutrition – Biochemistry from the University of California, Davis. She has worked on research studies at several laboratories including the UCD Medical Center research building, the UCD Center for Neuroscience, and the Western Human Nutrition Research Center, one of the six USDA-funded human nutrition centers in the country.

Disclaimer: The views of the author are his or her own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ask The Trainer.
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