Dietary advice goes back approximately forever, but the U.S. government plunged into the business of dishing food advice during World War II with the Basic Seven:
There are a couple of things about this chart I found eye-catching. The first was that butter had its own food group (along with “fortified margarine”). The second was that it was really confusing. There’s a “green and yellow vegetables” group that’s distinct from “potatoes and other vegetables and fruits,” while tomatoes are in with citrus and raw cabbage.
However, if you look at the pamphlet they distributed, much more becomes clear. The goal of the guidelines was to make sure that people dealing with wartime shortages nonetheless got adequate micronutrients without tedious explanations of concepts like “riboflavin.” Group One (the “green and yellow vegetables”) centered on green leafy vegetables and vegetables with beta-carotene; the green leafy vegetables also provide calcium, which is why people who can’t get milk are pointed toward Group One. Group Two (the “oranges, tomatoes, and grapefruit”) was clearly the Vitamin C group, hence why the emphasis on eating your cabbage and salad greens raw if you were eating those instead of oranges. The chart finished off with these cheery instructions: “[i]n addition to the basic 7…eat any other food you want.”
In the 1950s, they revised the Basic Seven into the Basic Four Food Groups:
The Basic Four Food Groups provided the government’s concise summary of nutritional advice from 1956 until 1992 – over three decades; it’s what many of us of a certain ago grew up with. The Basic Four wasn’t intended to be some sort of radical re-envisioning of nutritional advice – they were mostly just trying to simplify what they told people. They did eliminate butter as a food group. In Essentials of an Adequate Diet, the USDA publication providing the details on the nutrition programs, they explain that
“table fats are not stressed as a special group primarily because their main nutritional contribution is calories, although they add some essential fatty acids and Vitamin A. Moreover, their use in meals is quite different from that of other foods, as they are seldom eaten alone…[h]ence, elimination of table fats as a group to simplify the food plan is expected to have little effect on the nutritional quality of the diet selected.”
As with the Basic Seven, the main concern was making sure everyone got the important micronutrients. The portions recommended were minimums, and wouldn’t actually supply sufficient calories; you were expected to round out your diet with whatever appealed to you. In the 1980s, the USDA put together a “Food Wheel” graphic but this never really caught on.
So in 1992, they rolled out the Food Pyramid:
The goal with the Food Pyramid was to incorporate a suggested number of servings, emphasize the idea that added fats and sweets were a minimal addition and not a basic staple, and undercut the impression many people had from the Basic Four that meat should be 1/4 of their diet. Where it went screamingly awry was that the “bread, cereal, rice, and pasta” group did not necessarily specify whole grain in a lot of the images (and, seriously – that picture is not showing you whole-grain pasta!) I try to resist the impulse to tell people what they ought to be eating, but no one ought to be basing their entire diet on white flour.
The emphasis on milk is also seriously questionable. But it was that carbohydrate foundation I remember arguing with my child about when she wanted to have Ritz crackers for lunch one day. “They are a grain,” she informed me with the sort of patronizing helpfulness that only a just-informed-of-the-facts first grader can muster up. “And grains are at the bottom of the Food Pyramid.”
The original Food Pyramid lasted until 2005, when it got some updating I can only describe as possibly inspired by hallucinogenic substances:
I mean, this looks to me like the USDA throwing up its hands and saying “we really have no idea what you ought to be eating. EAT A RAINBOW. EAT A GODDAMN RAINBOW. Just please, please, please get some exercise with it.” They also called it “MyPyramid” because eliminating spaces makes you look up-to-date and trendy, I guess.
They kept the “who needs spaces” approach in 2011 when, after 19 years of pyramids, they ditched them for MyPlate.gov:
…which frankly looks to me like someone said “hey, remember the four food groups? Those worked great for thirty-six years. Let’s split fruit from vegetables and change ‘meat’ to ‘protein’ and call it a day.”
One of the problems with the Pyramid was that it specified number of servings, and the government’s idea of a serving was a lot less than most people eat. In theory, a serving of meat is three ounces, or about the size of a computer mouse. That is less than I eat. That is less than my kids eat. That is less than my kids ate when they were three. “A serving is smaller than most people think,” the American Heart Association helpfully explains, which makes me think that maybe one problem with the Pyramid was that we had a completely non-intuitive definition of portions. Anyway, they ditched portions entirely with MyPlate and went with proportions, figuring that if people are filling up their plates with non-calorie-dense things like vegetables, then maybe they will take in fewer calories.
Perhaps your white-flour-addled brain thinks that Michelle Obama was the first government agent to start bossing you about food and fitness, but we now know that the government was playing food-bully since well back to your grandparents’ day.