Dietary recommendations are nothing new. The USDA has been dishing them out to Americans since 1894. However, the elements of the recommendations continue to evolve: plate sizes, portion sizes and the food itself.
For new parents who likely grew up with the Food Pyramid, today’s MyPlate depiction of nutrition may appear unfamiliar. As food researchers unveil new facts about food, the USDA continually revises food guides to encourage healthy diets.
A History of USDA Food Guides
In 1894, the USDA published its first food recommendations through a Farmers’ Bulletin, suggesting diets for males based on content of protein, carbohydrate, fat and mineral matter. In 1916, Caroline Hunt, a nutritionist, wrote the first USDA food guide, Food for Young Children. Milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods made up five food groups. Then How to Select Foods addressed recommendations for the general public based on those five food groups in 1917.
Over the years, the USDA has responded to societal changes that reflected unique needs in the diet of the American people. In the 1920s and 1930s, the USDA offered food plans for four different income levels to help people shop for food during the Depression. A federal effort in the 1940s created the Basic Seven food guide of recommended nutrients and calories, which was revised during wartime to help people cope with food rationing and limited supplies.
The 1950s ushered in a “Basic Four” nutrient-focused food guide that would be used widely over the next two decades. These new guidelines recommended a minimum number of foods from each of the four food groups—milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grain products—with a focus on sufficient nutrients.
As scientific studies progressed through the years, researchers identified certain foods whose overconsumption was related to chronic illnesses. Getting enough nutrients did not paint the full picture of a nutritious diet.
Through the 1970’s to 1990’s the goal of USDA dietary recommendations shifted from a focus on receiving adequate nutrients toward avoiding overconsumption of certain food components linked to chronic diseases like heart disease: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. During that time, five food groups and correlating amounts began to evolve from a food wheel to the foundation of the Food Guide Pyramid. An emphasis on moderation and variety emerged in 2005’s rendition of the pyramid, which also included visualization of physical activity and the addition of oils as a food group.
The USDA introduced today’s MyPlate in 2011 as an entirely new graphic of a portioned plate aimed to grab American’s attention and provide a visual reminder of the importance of nutrition. The five food groups remained the same, but the recommendations encourage personalization of food choices. Eventually, MiPlato was also launched as the Spanish-language version of MyPlate.
For tips and support on a well-balanced diet for the whole family, visit our Healthy Eating articles.