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What Is a Food Pyramid? Has It Made Us Fatter?

Scientist and author, Beth wants to get healthy, stay healthy, and live life to the full.

A food pyramid is a visual representation of a balanced diet.

A food pyramid is a visual representation of a balanced diet.

Health Promotion and Food Pyramids

The term "food pyramid" is a shorthand way of describing the ideal balanced diet. Images such as pyramids or food plates are used by governments to deliver key nutritional messages. They are a visual representation of complex scientific information, and they summarize the main facts.

In 1992, the United States included a food pyramid in its health promotion campaign. It has become the standard nutrition guide for America and many other countries. The original idea came from a 1974 Swedish healthy eating drive. Sweden created a simple diagram to illustrate how much of each food type people should aim to eat. Those that should be eaten only in small quantities are at the top of the pyramid, whilst those which should form the majority of a healthy diet are at its base. More than 25 countries have since adopted the idea of a healthy food pyramid.

Harvard University Food Pyramid

The 1992 version of the USDA food pyramid is criticised by many nutritionists and dietitians. They point out that the image gives no guidance on portion size, and is not flexible enough to adapt to new dietary theories and the effect of nutrition on human health. Many people eat too much, and simply changing the proportion of each food type they consume will not help them lose weight. People need to reduce the total amount they eat to become more healthy.

It is alleged that the USDA food pyramid was influenced by major food producers to give a greater emphasis to grains than is appropriate for health. So in 2017, the Harvard Medical School created an updated version and published Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: a Guide to Healthy Eating. Their diagram of a food pyramid relies on peer-reviewed nutritional recommendations for a healthy diet. Their diet book is an informative read and includes easy-to-follow recipes to help you achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The key difference between this pyramid and the U.S. government’s food pyramid is that there is a new emphasis on exercise being part of a good diet. There is also a reduced emphasis on whole grains in Harvard University's recommendations.

Did the Food Pyramid Make Us Fat?

Latest Advice on Oils and Fats in a Healthy Diet

There is a continuing debate in the medical and scientific communities about the role of oils and fats in a healthy diet. Some nutritionists argue that there should be a greater distinction between healthy and unhealthy oils and fats. For example, Omega-3, considered a healthy oil, is found in fish and so more fish should be in your diet; while animal fats such as butter are usually considered unhealthy and so the amount eaten should be reduced.

Heart UK (a health and wellbeing charity) says “We all need some fats in our diet. It’s getting the right balance of the different types of fats that will help keep your cholesterol levels and your heart healthy. We need to eat some fats; for energy, to absorb some vitamins from food, for a healthy immune system, and for our brains to function.” The key message here is some. Replace highly saturated fat foods with healthier unsaturated fat alternatives.

A recent Swedish study tracked the diet and health of more than 4,000 people over a period of 16 years. The 2021 research concluded that a diet rich in dairy fat may actually lower, not raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, a 2018 meta-analysis of 29 previous studies found that eating dairy products offers protection against heart disease and stroke and may also give some protection against type 2 diabetes.

Incorrect Messages of Food Pyramids

The problem with the food pyramid concept is that it oversimplifies which foods are good and bad for your health. Some of the incorrect messages the graphic conveyed were as follows:

  • All fats are bad. There are many different kinds of fat. While saturated and trans-fats are definitely unhealthy, some types of fat are essential for health. Examples of beneficial fats are polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats, and fats from nuts, olive oil, fish, and grains.
  • All complex carbohydrates are good. There is no distinction in the pyramid campaign between refined carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates, including whole grain cereal and bread.
  • Protein is the same health-wise whatever its origin. For example, red meat is good protein, but is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, whereas chicken, turkey, fish and even pork have much lower levels of saturated fat. Beans and nuts are good alternative sources of protein that are included in other groups in the diagram. Protein from dairy foods is not marked as such in the image.
  • There is no guidance on weight, exercise, and alcohol.
  • Information on the importance of vitamins in a healthy diet is missing.
The eatwell plate gives consumers guidance on a balanced diet.

The eatwell plate gives consumers guidance on a balanced diet.

USDA Dietary Guidelines Change From Pyramid to Plate

In 2011, Choose My Plate replaced the USDA food pyramid nutrition guide. Rather than rely on logos and stylized diagrams, the U.S. government added videos and games to its marketing message for heathy eating. The Choose My Plate campaign wants you to visually divide the dinner plate in front of you, and make healthy food choices, rather than struggle with abstract concepts. MyPlate is a pie diagram. The campaign promotes the idea that a balanced diet with regular exercise equals a healthy lifestyle.

  • Eat more vegetables
  • Half your plate should be filled with vegetables
  • Quarter of your plate should be fruit or grains
  • Quarter of your plate is for protein
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Control portion size
  • Take regular exercise

This is similar to The Eatwell Guide adopted by the UK in 2016. This shows the proportions of different food types needed for a healthy and well-balanced diet. It uses a standard pie diagram and images of the food types. It suggests that people try to get this balance every day, or to even-out their diet over a longer period of several days or a week.

  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables. At least 5 portions of varied vegetables and fruit to be eaten every day.
  • Eat lots of bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and other starchy foods. Wholegrain varieties are recommended.
  • Some milk and dairy foods. These many be eaten in moderation.
  • Some meat, eggs, fish, beans, or non-dairy sources of protein.
  • Avoid high fat and high sugar food and drink as much as possible.
  • Try to choose options that are low in salt when you can.

Ultra-Processed Foods Are Killing Us

Who Should You Trust for Dietary Advice?

Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly should make you feel better and more energized. However, there's so much conflicting advice in the media that it's often difficult to know which nutritional advice to follow. If you're struggling to maintain a healthy weight, then you should seek appropriate advice from a qualified medical practitioner or nutritionist.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.