History of USDA nutrition guides

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The history of USDA nutrition guides includes over 100 years of American nutrition advice. The guides have been updated over time, to adopt new scientific findings and new public health marketing techniques. Over time they have described from 4 to 11 food groups.[1] Various guides have been criticized as not accurately representing scientific information about optimal nutrition, and as being overly influenced by the agricultural industries the USDA promotes.

Earliest guides[edit]

The USDA's first nutrition guidelines were published in 1894 by Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater as a farmers' bulletin.[2] In Atwater's 1904 publication titled Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food, he advocated variety, proportionality and moderation; measuring calories; and an efficient, affordable diet that focused on nutrient-rich foods and less fat, sugar and starch.[3][4] This information preceded the discovery of individual vitamins beginning in 1910.

A new guide in 1916, Food for Young Children by nutritionist Caroline Hunt, categorized foods into milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruits; fats and fatty foods; and sugars and sugary foods. How to Select Food in 1917 promoted these five food groups to adults, and the guidelines remained in place through the 1920s. In 1933, the USDA introduced food plans at four different cost levels in response to the Great Depression.[2]

In 1941, the first Recommended Dietary Allowances were created, listing specific intakes for calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2 B3, C and D.[2]

Basic 7[edit]

The USDA's "Basic 7" food groups from 1943 to 1956.

In 1943, during World War II, The USDA introduced a nutrition guide promoting the "Basic 7" food groups to help maintain nutritional standards under wartime food rationing.[5][6] The Basic 7 food groups were:

  1. Green and yellow vegetables (some raw; some cooked, frozen or canned)
  2. Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit (or raw cabbage or salad greens)
  3. Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits (raw, dried, cooked, frozen or canned)
  4. Milk and milk products (fluid, evaporated, dried milk, or cheese)
  5. Meat, poultry, fish, or eggs (or dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter)
  6. Bread, flour, and cereals (natural whole grain, or enriched or restored)
  7. Butter and fortified margarine (with added Vitamin A)

Basic Four[edit]

From 1956 until 1992 the United States Department of Agriculture recommended its "Basic Four" food groups.[7] These food groups were:

  • Vegetables and fruits: Recommended as excellent sources of vitamins C and A, and a good source of fiber. A dark-green or deep-yellow vegetable or fruit was recommended every other day.
  • Milk: Recommended as a good source of calcium, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin, and sometimes vitamins A and D. Cheese, ice cream, and ice milk could sometimes replace milk.
  • Meat: Recommended for protein, iron and certain B vitamins. Includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dry beans, dry peas, and peanut butter.
  • Cereals and breads: Whole grain and enriched breads were especially recommended as good sources of iron, B vitamins and carbohydrates, as well as sources of protein and fiber. Includes cereals, breads, cornmeal, macaroni, noodles, rice and spaghetti.

"Other foods" were said to round out meals and satisfy appetites. These included additional servings from the Basic Four, or foods such as butter, margarine, salad dressing and cooking oil, sauces, jellies and syrups.[7]

The Basic Four guide was omnipresent in nutrition education in the United States.[8] A notable example is the 1972 series Mulligan Stew, providing nutrition education for schoolchildren in reruns until 1981.

Food Guide Pyramid[edit]

The USDA's 1992 food guide pyramid.

The introduction of the USDA's food guide pyramid in 1992 attempted to express the recommended servings of each food group, which previous guides did not do. 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta occupied the large base of the pyramid; followed by 3 to 5 servings of vegetables; then fruits (2 to 4); then milk, yogurt and cheese (2 to 3); followed by meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts (2 to 3); and finally fats, oils and sweets in the small apex (to be used sparingly). Inside each group were several images of representative foods, as well as symbols representing the fat and sugar contents of the foods.[9]


MyPyramid, the revised USDA food pyramid.
Main article: MyPyramid

In 2005, the USDA updated its guide with MyPyramid, which replaced the hierarchical levels of the Food Guide Pyramid with colorful vertical wedges, often displayed without images of foods, creating a more abstract design. Stairs were added up the left side of the pyramid with an image of someone climbing them to represent exercise. The share of the pyramid allotted to grains now only narrowly edged out vegetables and milk, which were of equal proportions. Fruits were next in size, followed by a narrower wedge for protein and a small sliver for oils. An unmarked white tip represented discretionary calories for items such as candy, alcohol, or additional food from any other group.[10]


The MyPlate nutrition guide
Main article: MyPlate

MyPlate is the current nutrition guide published by the United States Department of Agriculture,[11] consisting of a diagram of a plate and glass divided into five food groups. It replaced the USDA's MyPyramid diagram on June 2, 2011, ending 19 years of food pyramid iconography.[12] The guide will be displayed on food packaging and used in nutritional education in the United States.

Dietary Guidelines[edit]

The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in the USDA and the United States Department of Health and Human Services jointly released a longer textual document called Dietary Guidelines for Americans, updated in 2010 with the next scheduled revision in 2015.[13] The first edition was published in 1980, and since 1985 has been updated every five years by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.[14] Like the USDA Food Pyramid, these guidelines have been criticized as being overly influenced by the agriculture industry.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nestle, Marion (2013) [2002]. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. University of California Press. pp. 36–37. ISBN 978-0-520-27596-6. 
  2. ^ a b c "Dietary Recommendations and How They Have Changed Over Time" (PDF). America's Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. United States Department of Agriculture. May 1999. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  3. ^ "USDA Food Pyramid History". Healthy Eating Politics. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  4. ^ "Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  5. ^ "Food Demonstrations To Be Held Over Nation". The Tuscaloosa News. The Associated Press. 2 April 1943. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  6. ^ "To Demonstrate "Basic 7" Diet". The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia). The Associated Press. 2 April 1943. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  7. ^ a b "The thing the professor forgot". National Agriculture Library Digital Repository. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 3 June 2011. 
  8. ^ Haddix, Carol (24 July 1985). "Four basic food groups grow up with the times". Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida). Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  9. ^ Huston, Diane (29 April 1992). "Food guide pyramid is built on a base of grains". Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky). The Associated Press. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  10. ^ "MyPyramid -- Getting Started" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  11. ^ "USDA's MyPlate". United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  12. ^ "Nutrition Plate Unveiled, Replacing Food Pyramid". The New York Times. 2 June 2011. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  13. ^ http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm
  14. ^ http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/Backgrounder.pdf[dead link]
  15. ^ http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20111216006064/en/Internal-Documents-Reveal-USDA-Dietary-Guidelines-Panel