To say trends and advice about healthy eating have changed over the past century would be an understatement—since the 40s, the government has put out 10 different official healthy eating guides, including the food pyramid we’re perhaps most familiar with.
Recent updates to the visual guides have no doubt guided Americans down a healthier nutritional path, but it’s been a bumpy ride along the way. For example, the dietary guide in the late ’70s, called the ‘Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide,’ even included alcohol and sweets (in moderation) as part of a healthy diet. Huh.
The USDA released its very first visual food guide in the 1940s, which introduced ‘the basic seven’ food groups—one of which was ‘butter and margarine.’ It lacked portion recommendations and encouraged people to “eat any other foods you want.” Now you see what we mean.
It took 40 years and three more versions of the visual dietary guides for the 1984 ‘food wheel’ to provide actual portion and calorie recommendations for its five major food groups. The pie chart still included a sixth sliver for sweets and alcohol.
Then came a guide you’ve surely seen before: the food pyramid. “The food pyramid was the first to have a total diet approach,” says Wesley Delbridge R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It broke down the number of recommended daily servings for each of six categories (dairy, vegetables, fruit, proteins like meat and beans, carbs like bread and rice, and fats and sugars). This 1992 update was meant to paint a proportionally-accurate picture of what to eat in a day.
The food pyramid later transformed into MyPyramid in 2005, which then turned into the current guide, called MyPlate, in 2011. MyPlate breaks foods into four main groups (vegetables, fruit, protein, and grains), plus dairy as a smaller fifth and final group.
This visual goes beyond total daily eats and instead breaks down which foods, and how much of each, to put on your plate at every meal, says Melissa Prest, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.R., L.D.N. Thinking about food choices meal-by-meal makes healthy eating feel more doable, doesn’t it?
To make sure your healthy eating efforts are up to date, we rounded up the eight biggest changes between the good ‘ol food pyramid and today’s MyPlate.
Tailor Your Nutrition To Your Needs
The basic MyPlate image doesn’t include serving sizes because the USDA now recommends individualized dietary guidelines, based on age, sex, activity level, and height and weight.
You can easily calculate your personal calorie and serving recommendations at ChooseMyPlate.gov. They also provide an online tool to track your daily food intake and activity.
Say Adios To Excess Fats And Sugars
When the food guide pyramid debuted, one of its most striking changes was the depiction of fats and sugars at the top, representing the smallest part of our daily diet, says Delbridge. This was the first time the government addressed these unhealthy habits and recommended that Americans consume sweets sparingly.
The current MyPlate visual completely eliminates fat and sugar, and its more detailed online resources urge you to limit added fat, sodium, and sugar in every food choice you make.
Focus On Fat Quantity And Quality
While fat’s not included on MyPlate, you shouldn’t be avoiding it completely. The guide’s personalized online portion tool allows for between five and seven daily teaspoons of oil for adults, depending on age and sex. It also considers nuts, seeds, and fatty fish part of the ‘protein’ portion of your plate, and avocados and olives as part of the ‘vegetables’ portion.
“The emphasis with fat is more about quality than quantity now,” says Kristen F. Gradney, M.H.A., R.D.N., L.D.N., spokesperson for Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A recommendation of butter isn’t the same as a recommendation of olive oil, avocado, or nuts.” So, don’t expect butter to ever be its own food group again.
The unsaturated fats in most vegetable and nut oils provide essential nutrients and have a place in a balanced diet, Gradney explains.
Eat Carbohydrates In Moderation
The food pyramid identified breads, cereals, rice, and pasta as the foundation for a healthy diet. It recommended six to eleven servings per day. The MyPlate slashed recommended intake to five to eight daily servings, depending on gender and age.
The MyPlate design includes grains as just a quarter of your plate, reducing the amount of carbs Americans need (and think they need) to consume, says Gradney.
Go For Whole Grains
The food pyramid also treated refined carbs and whole grains equally, says Delbridge. We know better these days: Whole grains contain more fiber than refined grains, helping to keep your blood sugar in check while feeling fuller for longer. This is why whole grains are a healthier choice than refined carbs like pasta.
MyPlate specifically uses the word ‘grains’ instead of the old ‘bread, cereal, rice, and pasta’ to emphasize the importance of the type of carbs we consume. It recommends that at least half of our daily intake comes from whole grains.
More Fruits And Veggies
Old recommendations suggested Americans eat three to five servings of veggies and two to four servings of fruits per day. Even combined (between five and nine servings), they made up a smaller portion of the proposed daily diet than grains and refined carbs.
MyPlate, though, emphasizes that half your plate should be fruits and vegetables.
“The average American consumes one serving of fruit and one serving of vegetable per day,” says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “I’ve personally used this data to encourage clients to increase their fruit and vegetable intake.” And rightfully so, considering fruits and veggies are packed with crucial vitamins and nutrients.
Be Picky With Your Proteins
The MyPlate guidelines recommend a wide variety of plant and animal protein sources, from poultry and beans to eggs and nuts. They also suggest consuming at least eight ounces of seafood per week (particularly omega-3-containing fatty fish like salmon), and that any meat or poultry be lean or low-fat.
Additionally, the USDA now also recommends we limit processed meat products, like deli meats, which are often high in sodium, and cooking methods (hello fry-ups!) that add considerable saturated fat to protein
Though there’s no jogging stick figure on the MyPlate graphic (like there was on its predecessor, MyPyramid), its personalized online component tailors your individual nutrition needs based on your activity level, and its tracking tool includes space for you to check off whether you’ve gotten at least two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity each week. This continues to illustrate the importance of physical activity, along with solid nutrition, for a total approach to healthy living.
Check out just how much the USDA visual guides have changed over the years: