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The Food Guide Pagoda & Other Riffs on the Pyramid

Jun 2, 2011 9:09 PMNov 20, 2019 10:22 PM


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Photo Credits: credit: USDA

This morning, the USDA bid farewell to the food pyramid and unveiled a “new generation icon” of healthy eating: MyPlate. Four brightly colored wedges show what proportion of our plates ought to be filled with fruits, veggies, grains, and protein, accompanied by a glass or side dish of dairy. Fats, oils, and sweets are nowhere to be found. This new design, health officials hope, will give people a clearer idea of portion size than the original food pyramid did—and be just plain clearer than the updated (read: undecipherable) food pyramid released in 2005.

So, how does MyPlate compare to other dietary graphics? Here’s a look back at past USDA visuals—and a glimpse of healthy eating guides from around the world.

Photo Credits: credit: USDA

In 1943, the USDA released this chart detailing the “Basic 7,” designed to help people plan nutritious meals despite the food rationing and shortages of World War II. Circular shape aside, the Basic 7 bear little resemblance to the new MyPlate. Potatoes are a vegetable, “butter and fortified margarine” warrant their own food group, and serving size is never mentioned. (Eating fruits and veggies of different colors to get a variety of nutrients, however, is still recommended today; in detailing the MyPlate food groups, USDA suggests you “vary your veggies.”)

And in contrast to modern dietary guides, which try to reign in calorie count, not just advise on nutrients, a note at the bottom told consumers that the guidelines were just for starters: “In addition to the Basic 7… Eat any other foods you want.”

In 1956, with rations lifted, the USDA changed the Basic 7 to the Basic Four: milk; meat; fruits and vegetables; and grains. Like the Basic 7, these guidelines focused on getting enough important nutrients rather than avoiding unhealthy foods.

Photo Credits: credit: USDA

The USDA rolled out the original Food Guide Pyramid in 1992. The graphic was designed to tell people, at a glance, how much they should be eating of various types of food. Gone were the days of butter as a basic; the pyramid placed fats, oils, and sweets at its tiny tip, without any alluring illustrations.

Many experts took issue with the pyramid. Among other problems, it encouraged people to eat too many carbs—particularly as portion sizes grew—and portrayed all fat as bad, rather than making room for healthy dietary fats. Plus, who knew what a serving size was? Most people weren’t carefully comparing their steak to a deck of cards.

Photo Credits: credit: USDA

So in 2005, the food pyramid got a make-over. The USDA called the MyPyramid “deliberately simple”—but the graphic was so sleek it contained almost no information. The stripes were meant to represent different food groups, with the width of each band showing its proportional share of a healthy diet. But as nothing edible was actually pictured, it was hard to figure out what was what (meat is purple? huh?). “I call it foodless and useless," nutrition and public health researcher Marion Nestle, told the Los Angeles Times.

The only intuitive part of the new guide was the figure climbing stairs up the side: a nod to physical activity as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Photo Credits: credit: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing

The Austrialian Guide to Healthy Eating lays out what proportion of your food should come from each food group, but doesn’t specify portion size. Although it looks a bit like a plate-based guide, it’s not about the portions at a given meal, as MyPlate is: it depicts a healthy overall food intake. It also has junk food and soda off to the side, allowing that, while they shouldn’t be a main component of a healthy diet, they can be an occasional addition to one.

Photo Credits: credit: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan

For its healthy eating guidelines, Japan inverted the pyramid to make a spinning top. Small amounts of dairy and fruit make up the tip, followed by increasingly large layers of fish and meat, vegetables, and grains. The top is crowned by a drinking glass, an instruction to drink enough healthy beverages like water and tea, and a human figure using the top’s flat surface as a treadmill, showing the importance of exercise.

Photo Credits: credit: Chinese Nutrition Society

The Chinese have also come up with a riff on the pyramid, swapping it for an architectural symbol closer to home: the Food Guide Pagoda. The relative proportions are fairly similar to those in the original USDA pyramid, though the pagoda draws a distinction between meat and vegetarian protein sources. How much to eat from each group, however, is spelled out in grams, not abstract “servings.”

Photo Credits: credit: UK Food Standards Agency

Like MyPlate, the UK eatwell plate tells you how to fill up your plate: about a third vegetables and fruits, a third grains, and the rest split between meat, dairy, and fats and sugars. While there’s a lot going on for one plate, this guide works to get across both what and how much you should eat at a given meal. And in a nice touch, the wedge representing fats and sugars calls to mind, appropriately, a slice of cake.

Photo Credits: credit: National Nutrition Council of Finland

The Finnish have taken the idea of a food plate model to a more fundamental level than the Brits and Americans: They just go with a photo of a healthy meal. The model uses a few exemplars rather than whole categories—don’t worry, no one’s saying you have to eat boiled potatoes or green beans every day—but looking at a real, nutritious meal carries a clear message: If your plate looks like this plate, you’re good to go.

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