Who Invented the Food Pyramid and Why You’d Be Crazy to Follow It
The USDA’s first nutrition guidelines go all
the way back to 1894.
These essentially were: moderation in everything,
eat a variety of nutrition-rich foods, watch
your portion size, and avoid eating too much
This is a surprisingly good recommendation
given the then state of knowledge about human
biology and vastly superior to their changing
recommendations over the next century or so,
the most famous of which being the Food Pyramid
introduced in the late 20th century.
So how and when did the Food Pyramid idea
For that, we need to head across the pond
The very first “food pyramid” was a Swedish
invention and it was an invention of necessity
more than anything else.
Back in 1970s, Sweden saw its country gripped
by high food prices.
The government then tasked The Socialstyrelsen
(National Board of Health and Welfare) with
coming up with a way to help the situation.
In response to this, in 1972, they came up
with “basic” and “supplementary” foods- in
a nutshell basic foods were foods considered
essential to a person’s well-being and supplementary
foods were foods that provided vitamins and
minerals basic foods did not.
However, it was one, Anna Britt Agnsäter,
working for Kooperativa Förbundet (Swedish
Co-operative Union- a retail/grocery co-operative),
who really pushed the idea to the next level.
Though the Socialstyrelsen’s basic foods idea
was a good one, Anna felt that it could be
improved upon and developed an idea of a triangular
model to better visualize the portions involved
The scheme was officially unveiled to the
Swedish populace in Kooperativa Förbundet’s
annual magazine, under the headline “Good
wholesome food at reasonable prices”.
An important thing to note is that the Socialstyrelsen
and by extension the Swedish government itself
sought to distance itself from the pyramid
in lieu of using a “dietary circle” model.
This version of the circular model, though
useful for representing what foods were important,
was criticized for not explicitly showing
how much of each food type should be consumed,
something the pyramid model did in a simple
and visually striking way.
Now, if you take a quick look at the original
pyramid, you may notice that there are some
stark differences with the eventual USDA version.
There’s a reason for this beyond simply a
more modern understanding of nutrition and
health- pressure from lobbyists and heavy
hitters in the food industry.
You see, the food pyramid stood to be the
go-to standard millions of Americans would
base their entire diet around and billions
of dollars were at stake.
For example, you may notice that in the earliest
1992 version in America, dairy gets its own
section, whereas in the Swedish version it
is simply bundled along with the other staple
This isn’t an accident and subconsciously
this suggests that dairy products are an essential
part of one’s diet, which is obviously not
true since many cultures throughout history
got along perfectly fine without non-human
milk, as do vegans and others today.
If you are guessing that entities within the
dairy industry lobbied hard for this modification,
it’s generally thought that you’re correct.
You may also notice that the original American
pyramid suggests 6-11 servings of bread, cereal,
rice and pasta per day.
According to the leader of a group of nutritionists
who developed the initial version of that
food pyramid for the United States, Luise
Light, this was due to interference from food
industry giants as well.
Light went so far as to state that the Pyramid
the nutritionists created ultimately got,
to quote her, “sold to the highest bidder”
She goes on to state:
“When our version of the Food Guide came
back to us revised, we were shocked to find
that it was vastly different from the one
we had developed.
As I later discovered, the wholesale changes
made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary
of Agriculture were calculated to win the
acceptance of the food industry.
For instance, the Agriculture Secretary’s
office altered wording to emphasize processed
foods over fresh and whole foods, to downplay
lean meats and low-fat dairy choices because
the meat and milk lobbies believed it’d
hurt sales of full-fat products; it also hugely
increased the servings of wheat and other
grains to make the wheat growers happy.
The meat lobby got the final word on the color
of the saturated fat/cholesterol guideline
which was changed from red to purple because
meat producers worried that using red to signify
“bad” fat would be linked to red meat
in consumers’ minds.
Where we, the USDA nutritionists, called for
a base of 5-9 servings of fresh fruits and
vegetables a day, it was replaced with a paltry
2-3 servings (changed to 5-7 servings a couple
of years later because an anti-cancer campaign
by another government agency, the National
Cancer Institute, forced the USDA to adopt
the higher standard).
Our recommendation of 3-4 daily servings of
whole-grain breads and cereals was changed
to a whopping 6-11 servings forming the base
of the Food Pyramid as a concession to the
processed wheat and corn industries.
Moreover, my nutritionist group had placed
baked goods made with white flour — including
crackers, sweets and other low-nutrient foods
laden with sugars and fats — at the peak
of the pyramid, recommending that they be
To our alarm, in the “revised” Food Guide,
they were now made part of the Pyramid’s
And, in yet one more assault on dietary logic,
changes were made to the wording of the dietary
guidelines from “eat less” to “avoid
too much,” giving a nod to the processed-food
industry interests by not limiting highly
profitable “fun foods” (junk foods by
any other name) that might affect the bottom
line of food companies.”
While it’s always important to note that
correlation does not equal causation and there
likely were many other factors in play here,
it’s somewhat humorously pointed out by
the The Wall Street Journal that obesity rates
have increased ever since the introduction
of the food pyramid, aka the day millions
of people suddenly thought eating eleventy
billion slices of white bread and crackers
per day was healthy.
This brings us to 1995 when the pyramid was
being revised again.
At the time, the USDA was under pressure to
alter the wording of the pyramid to say “eat
less salt and sugar”.
The sugar industry, however, fought this change
and when the revised pyramid was released,
it advised people to eat less salt, but “moderate”
their sugar intake.
The funny part is that consuming excessive
amounts of sugar regularly is most definitely
bad for you.
But on the sodium side of things, the number
one reason most say to maintain a low sodium
diet- that high sodium=high blood pressure
and thus higher chance of heart disease- based
on the summation of research to date, doesn’t
actually appear to be correct.
For the full story here, see our video Is
Salt Actually Bad for You?, but in a nutshell,
despite almost every major health body in
the world recommending lowering salt intake
as a way to reduce chronically high blood
pressure and thus instances of heart disease,
this has actually been an ongoing contentious
issues in the medical field for almost a half
a century owing to the general lack of evidence
that this is happening.
As Dr. Ronald Bayer, et al. noted in their
2012 paper “Salt And Public Health”- “After
a careful consideration of the debate over
salt, we have concluded that the concealment
of scientific uncertainty is a mistake that
serves neither the ends of science nor good
To briefly sum up why this is so controversial,
despite, again, pretty much every major health
body recommending low salt intake to improve
health, in 2011, two Cochrane reviews found
no evidence that low salt diets actually does
They concluded, “After more than 150 random
clinical trials and 13 population studies
without and obvious signal in favor of sodium
reduction, another position could be to accept
that such a signal may not exist.”
So at this point if you’re wondering what
you should eat, Harvard for a time put out
their own version of the Food Pyramid that
was actually based on good science instead
of lobbyist pressure, and has since along
with the USDA switched to a plate diagram
version, showing essentially the ratios of
different things that you should put on your
plate, though not the specific amount, as
this varies from person to person based on
a variety of things like their physical activity
level, what types of workouts they do, if
any, height, lean body mass, etc.
Unsurprisingly their recommendation mostly
comes down to about half of what’s on your
plate should be fruits and vegetables (and
they humorously note that potatoes and french
fries don’t count as a vegetable), a quarter
healthy proteins from things like poultry,
fish, beans, and nuts, but limiting red meat
and cheese, and avoiding processed meats altogether.
The other quarter should be made up of whole
grains like brown rice and the like.
And they note in cooking you should always
use oils made of mostly healthy fats like
It’s also interesting to note that the latest
USDA’s MyPlate recommendation actually mostly
mirrors the Harvard recommendation, with the
major divergence being that they still have
Dairy as its own essential group and even
explicitly state “The amount of food from
the Dairy Group you need to eat…”, again
emphasizing you NEED to eat dairy to eat healthily.
In truth, what people actually NEED on a high
level are protein, carbohydrates, and fats,
and a bunch of different vitamins and minerals
and the like.
These can be consumed from a variety of sources,
the best of which are more or less outlined
in both Harvard’s plate and the USDA’s,
just with the USDA explicitly stating to get
what you need here, you need to eat dairy
products, which isn’t true at all and I’m
sure the Dairy industry had nothing to do
with the decision to make that its own group
on the USDA’s MyPlate.
Book recommendation: the two books Bigger,
Leaner, Stronger and Thinner, Leaner, Stronger,
both by Michael Matthews.
The former is for guys and the latter for
In a nutshell, they are extremely well researched
and ultra-science backed, cutting through
the amazing load of BS out there when it comes
to nutrition and fitness to the core of what
is actually important to eat and do workout
wise for optimal health.
It turns out none of this is rocket surgery,
nor even that terribly time consuming on the
workout side, nor does it require any sort
of bizarre workout program or super restrictive
They are easy reads, easy to understand, and
when finished you’ll know pretty much everything
you need to know to get super fit and healthy
and eat right in a sustainable way and with