Food Pyramid

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T he original food guide pyramid was developed in 1992 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a nutrition guide for Americans. The pyramid was separated into food groups; these categories constituted an ideal average daily diet.

Each category stipulated the recommended number of

servings; for example, the USDA suggested two to four daily servings of fruits and three to five of vegetables. However, they failed to indicate what made up a serving. For instance, was one piece of broccoli considered a serving, or was a bushel of broccoli a serving? As there were no actual measurements indicated as a basis of serving size, this was mostly left to the interpretation of the consumer.

The food guide pyramid was used as a technique to teach nutrition to children as early as the 1950s in Australia. At an international conference in 1988, Helen Denning Ullrich, one of the primary founders of the Society for Nutrition Education in i967, introduced it as a popular teaching tool for daily dietary needs. In the audience were scientists from the USDA who asked for copies. In 1992, this food guide pyramid was adopted as a replacement for the "four food groups" scheme in most school districts' health curriculums. These had been introduced as part of the war effort and food rationing in 1941 as the "basic seven groups" (green and yellow vegetables; oranges, tomatoes, and grapefruit; potatoes and other vegetables and fruit; milk and milk products; meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dried peas and beans; bread, flour, and cereals; and butter and fortified margarine). In i946 the "recommended daily servings" were suggested for the groups. The food groups were simplified to four in i956 by the United States Department of Agriculture, and then, in the i970s, a fifth group (fats, sweets, and alcoholic beverages in moderation) was added.

American students from the i990s should have vivid memories of memorizing and drawing the food pyramid as part of a health class. But the tradition is actually much older. The USDA published its first dietary recommendations in 1894; in 1916, Caroline Hunt published her Food for Young Children, which divided food into five groups: milk/meat, cereals, vegetables/fruits, fats/fatty foods, and sugars/sugary foods. Over and over again the Government has attempted to define the basic food needs; each redefinition reflects the food ideologies of the day.

Health educators' insistence on considering the food pyramid as a guarantee of a healthy diet is the result of the USDA's influence via its "authoritative advice." Images of the food pyramid were so widespread that, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, the Pyramid was not only taught in schools, but it "appeared in countless media articles and brochures, and was plastered on cereal boxes and food labels" (Harvard School

Food Pyramid's New Dimensions

Food Pyramid's New Dimensions

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of Public Health 2006). Moreover, the USDA collaborates with the Department of Health and Human Services in publishing a document—every five years since 1980— called Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the USDA's website, "the Guidelines provide authoritative advice for people two years and older about how good dietary habits can promote health and reduce risk for major chronic diseases. They serve as the basis for Federal food and nutrition education programs." The main aim of the guidelines is to establish the means to achieve "good health" for American citizens. Therefore, they include not only recommendations on food but also on exercise and unhealthy behaviors such as smoking. Ultimately, these suggestions seek to reduce the intake of substances that cause obesity, which the document notes is of "great public health concern" because of the deterioration of the body via an onslaught of diseases (Thompson and Venema 2005).

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is not only a theoretical advocacy of health, it actually impacts how billions of dollars are spent each year (Harvard School of Public Health). The guidelines set the standards for all federal nutrition programs, including the school lunch program, and help determine what food products Americans buy. Thus, the food industry takes a great interest in what is included as "healthy" and what is not because their sales can be greatly impacted.

In the 2005 version of the Guidelines, the USDA altered the existing pyramid in order to better address portion control and health standards. The old pyramid did not adequately represent healthy eating. "Why not? Its blueprint was based on shaky scientific evidence, and it barely changed over the years to reflect major advances in our understanding of the connection between diet and health" (Harvard School of Public Health). The new food pyramid is laid out completely differently from the old. Instead of upwards layers, which visually provided an estimate of portions per food group, the new pyramid is composed of a series of vertical lines that siphon off the different categories. Each food group is color-coded, and its size depends upon how much of it you should eat. However, while the original pyramid was self-explanatory, this pyramid requires a lot of effort to understand. Its abstract nature may subtract from the intended message. If the average citizen cannot understand such an image with a glance, then it is arguably ineffective.

However, dieticians champion the new pyramid. They are now using it to promote healthy individual-based diets to their clients seeking weight loss. According to nutritionist Anne Collins, who offers weight-management strategies to her customers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines are centered upon helping citizens understand and achieve a "balanced diet, healthy eating, and healthy weight management" (Collins 2006). Collins believes in the integrity of the new guidelines to the point that her website even offers a strategy of how to adapt the USDA's new food pyramid into specific diets based on caloric intake levels. The new USDA 2005 pyramid, with its portion control recommendations, is a state-of-the-art government-sponsored balanced diet. Yet the critics have attacked it as advocating the consumption of certain fish labeled as dangerous because of contamination by the FDA. Today, one can go on the USDA website to MyPyr-amid and enter in their personal information (sex, age, weight, height), and the pyramid can suggest how many servings—which are broken down into ounces and actual amounts—a person should have in their day (Collins 2006).

SLG/Jessica Rissman

See also Peters; Smoking

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