Steven Smith: The Food Guides, History and Dissection


Jul 19, 2012
The Food Guides:

Every so often, the American Dietetic Association and United States Department of Agriculture slightly modify the national food recommendations, and people are left wondering why authorities didn’t get the recommendations correct the first time. Why wasn’t the first set of recommendations so meticulously researched before? After all, thousands of peer-reviewed journals are supposed to be backing these recommendations. Why have the food recommendations changed several times in the last century? Was the food market changing? Was the scientific knowledge of food changing? If the recommendations were changing because the science was changing, who is responsible for the millions of people fallaciously recommended to follow in the wrong direction when current science was unavailable? Thousands of doctors and dieticians preach the food pyramid’s recommendations, yet old research resurfaces, and new research comes around all of the time, that tends to disprove it. Albeit food recommendations change every so often, our genetic and physiological makeup, and our bio-individuality don’t. We are still in debted to our bodies for every wrong decision we make when we put food into our mouths.

I’m not bashing the USDA or the ADA at all. I just want to show the obvious evidence that their recommendations change every so often, which affects millions of lives, and in turn, lowers these agencies’ credibility. I suggest that folks take nutrition information with a grain of salt, no matter where their source for nutrition information comes from, especially from pseudo science, bro-science, and heath gurus. And surely, anything even close to a “perfect” diet is not going to be derived from a heavily monopolized industry, which serves corporations, and the masses of society, rather than the individual.

When one can step outside of the box, and view the food guide pyramid subjectively, he/she can easily see that it has very little to do with the health of the individual. The food pyramid seems to have a lot more to do with recommending subsidized foods that are cheaply produced, and created for feeding the masses. When the masses are placed higher than the individual, the quality of a given commodity is typically reduced. And any time the masses are placed higher than the individual, the freedom of the individual tends to diminish. From an economical perspective, the notion of lowering the quality of a commodity to supply more, is related to the concept of supply and demand. This is in the sense that as the demand of a commodity increases, the supply must match or exceed the demand. This generally results in the acquisition of lower cost resources, or lower cost production techniques, for net profit gain, and future economic security. This is seen in the modern-day agriculture industry, as it strives for low cost production techniques (pesticides, fungicides, germicides, new machinery, GMO seeds, etc), which help to have a high production rate to meet the demands of the population. This usually provides a higher net gain of profits.

It is very obvious that subsidized foods are considered with utmost priority when determining food guide recommendations. Anyone who opposes this statement should realize this simple logic: Because a grain-based diet is what the food guides recommend, and grains are a heavily subsidized food, we can deduce that the food guides recommend a lot of subsidized food. Simple concept….

Lets pretend that yesterday, a certain super-food was found, that was scientifically proven to be the healthiest food to consume. Its a strange worm, which lives off of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. It has the ability to cure any disease as long as it is consumed every day. Its hypoallergenic, and practically anybody can eat it, with only positive effects. But the catch, is that it’s in low abundance. It’s very expensive to manipulate and domesticate, because it requires specific temperatures, pressures, and other conditions of those only found in hydrothermal vents 800 meters below the sea. So the ability to grow and proliferate this species of worms for a mass scale would be near impossible with today’s science. Theoretically, these worms could never be placed in a USDA food guide at all, unless the marvels of modern science could come up with a way to grow them for a global scale. Corporations, and food production giants would have a great trouble supplying them to the masses.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but it makes a very sound point. The fact that only food that is easy and cheap to grow comprises the largest part of the food guides is no real surprise. And the fact that the food guides are lobbied by the agricultural industry makes perfect sense, when we look at how the food guide, and specifically the pyramid, is structured. For the most part, I am going to refer to the pyramid, when writing in present tense, because this is what most people in the US relate to when talking about food guides.

Grains, under the right conditions, just so happen to be a food that is very cheap and easy to produce. This is most likely why grains are at the bottom of the food pyramid. Subsidized food has more to do with politics, and economics, than health. Lets remember that I am not demonizing grains in any way, and possibly given certain individuals, and under the right conditions, grains may promote health. But the fact of the matter is, there was an insidious rise in cases of celiac disease, wheat allergies, corn allergies, and gluten allergies, in the past century, all attributed to grains. And if the food guide pyramid was by any means near a “perfect diet,” there wouldn’t be so many problems associated with grains, the most heavily recommended food on the pyramid. Evidently, the ADA, and the USDA realize that their pyramid cannot please everyone, or provide health to even most individuals. The goal was to attempt to supply basic nutrition in a corporate fashion, so that basic nutrition could also be available to everyone. The last statement shows proof that I am not supporting any kind of conspiracy theory at all, and I realize that the ADA, and USDA know perfectly well, why they recommend the foods that they do. There are no secrets, and people can easily and logically figure these things out. Unfortunately people let food information and recommendations get the best of them, which leads to confusion in the general public, as well as the most accomplished professionals. The main point of this article series, is to show that feeding the masses and feeding the individual are two completely different things, and the pyramid and other recommendations were set up with the goal to supply basic nutrition, not a perfect diet. Millions of people still become very ill while following food pyramid recommendations, whether they are fat, or not. And it seems that the notion of health has been greatly skewed in the last half a century; while poor health and fatness are completely different subjects, the authorities and the general public, seem to think that they are definitively related.

The table below was taken from the USDA. Notice the cues focusing on the population, and all people, as opposed to the individual. Notice the fact that they suggest to preach the same ideas many times and many ways, without reference to change. The only time they consider the individual is when referencing his/her ability to grow, purchase, produce, and consume food, showing that they are considering the financial aspects and ability of the individual, but not the bio-individuality or physiology.

Table 2—Characteristics of an effective nutrition education program

A truly effective nutrition education program will--
Reach the whole population—all groups, all races, both sexes, all creeds, all ages.
Recognize motives for action and include suggestions on what to do and how to do it.
Develop qualified leadership. Drive home the same ideas many times and in many ways.
Employ every suitable education tool available. Adapt those tools to the many and varied groups to be reached and use them with intelligence and skill.
Consider all phases of individual, family, and group situations that have a bearing upon ability to produce, buy, prepare, conserve, and consume food.
Afford opportunity for participation in making, putting into effect, and evaluating local nutrition programs.
Enlist the fullest participation of all citizens and work through every possible channel to reach the people.
Be adequately financed.

Source: National Nutrition Conference for Defense, 1941

The Food Guides:
History From 1894 to 1943

Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater published the USDA’s first nutrition guidelines in 1894, at a time when individual vitamins were unknown, and lower food prices were sought after. Thus, the guidelines were based on macronutrients, as well as food prices (1). Foods were considered either healthy or unhealthy, solely upon fat, carbohydrate, and protein content, with ignorance of micronutrients (1). Because of Dr. Atwater’s measurements in bomb calorimeters, and the fact that lipid measured at 9kcal per gram, as opposed to 4kcal per gram of protein and carbohydrate respectively, Atwater suggested that lipid was over 2x higher in caloric value, and thus more fattening (1,2,3). Atwater regarded simple sugar as fattening as well, because of its relatively high calorie to weight ratio (3). He suggested that people eat a balance of macronutrients so that people would not become imbalanced in any one area. Atwater revolutionized nutrition, with a lot of fantastic research, and experiments. However, there was no reference to vitamins and minerals at the time.

“Unless care is exercised in selecting food, a diet may result which is one-sided or badly balanced that is, one in which either protein or fuel ingredients (carbohydrate and fat) are provided in excess.... The evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear-perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease.” -(Atwater, 1902)

There were only theories of smaller constituents (vitamins) in food, and it wasn’t yet known, understood, or proven, that vitamins existed. Theories of smaller constituents (vitamins) arose by Dr. William Fletcher in 1905. Dr. Fletcher observed that unpolished (wild) rice prevented beriberi disease, whereas white rice didn’t. He postulated that there were essential factors in wild rice, which were not in white, polished rice (4). Vitamins were first truly discovered in 1912, by Polish scientist Cashmir Funk, when B vitamins were isolated from the husks of rice (5). The shift from macronutrient to micronutrient emphasis was a major science paradigm shift in the field of nutrition.

After the discovery of vitamins, there was a new interest in micronutrients. In 1917, Caroline Hunt of the USDA established the first USDA food guide, titled How to Select Foods (6). The guide was formally published for the general public in 1921, and it opposed Dr. Atwater’s claim that fat and sugar limitation was necessary. Hunt took micronutrients into account and focused on a diet that supplied enough vitamins. In How to Select Foods, meat/milk (protein) were 20%, cereals/starch, 20%, vegetables/fruit, 30%, fatty foods, 20%, and sugars, 10% of total calories. In servings, these percentages equated to 3-4 servings of protein foods, 9 servings of cereals/starch, 5 servings of fruit/vegetables, 9 servings of fatty foods, and 10 servings of sugary foods, albeit serving sizes varied considerably with today’s standards (6). Despite the varied serving sizes, certain food groups were not as restricted as they are today. In 1940, the first dietary allowances for vitamins, were created by the National Academy of Sciences, with only A, C, D, and some B vitamins. And these Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) became public in 1941 (7).

History From 1943 to 1979, With Dissection

1943 "Basic Seven"In 1943, food guidelines named “The Basic Seven,” were created, outlining seven food groups that should be consumed every day. Food groups were similar to that of the modern day pyramid, or “MyPlate.” For adults, it was recommended that 2 or more glasses of milk, 1 or more servings of meat, fish, cheese, or poultry, 2 or more servings of vegetables, 2 or more servings of fruit, 1 egg, 2 or more servings of bread/cereals, and 2 or more tablespoons of butter were to be consumed daily (8,9). World War II ended in 1945, and munitions factories began to be utilized to produce fertilizer (Tennessee Valley Authority Act 1933), which inadvertently marked the end of the small farmer era, and made way for the agricultural industry (10).

1956 "Basic Four"The USDA changed its food recommendations in 1956, and from 1956 to 1980, the USDA based its food recommendations on four food groups; fruits and vegetables, meat, milk, and cereals/breads (11). Condensing the food groups made the recommendations slightly easier for consumers to follow. The USDA described these four groups as the “Basic Four.” It was suggested that adults consumed 2 or more servings of meat, 4 or more servings of bread/cereals, 4 or more servings of fruit/vegetables, and drank 2 or more glasses of milk, every day (11,12). Grain recommendations doubled as mass production of grains increased.

In plain sight, one can see that these food guides were very similar. The same basic food was recommended. But, all of a sudden, butter was no longer recommended, and meat/grain recommendations doubled (11,12). What seemed like small changes, trickled down to nearly every person in the nation, and drastically affected the food market. Small farmers who couldn’t keep up with the growing demands and population ceased to remain in the business, as more corporate farming began to take over (13,14,15).

"For Bill, [Jr.,] there is no better life than a farmer's life, but whether he can remain on the farm is problematical. Thirty years ago, there were about 7 million farms. Today fewer than 3.5 million farms feed 53 percent more people. By 1980, experts say, there may be only a million farms left." -(Look Magazine, 1965)

The small farmers who were in business began to adhere to the demands for specialized mono-crops, like corn, soy, and wheat. In adherence to these demands, farmers required pesticides and other chemicals needed to keep their unnatural mono-crops alive (14). Authorities began to take to the idea of the lipid hypothesis, proposed by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1956, the same year the USDA pyramid recommendations changed, butter recommendations ceased, and grain recommendations doubled. Clearly, Dr. Keys had something to do with these changes. There was a new agenda, and dietary fat was blamed for the cause of atherosclerosis, plaque, coronary artery disease, stroke, and a plethora of other diseases.

There are many factors to consider when acknowledging the increased grain recommendations and lowered fat recommendations:(1)The increasing US population, (2) Dr. Ancel Keys’s Lipid Hypothesis, (3) cholesterol studies involving grains, (4) the increased demands of restaurants and food production corporations, (5) growth of the agricultural industry.

1.The US population increased drastically in the 1800’s and early 1900’s through both immigration and general birth rates. From 1820 to 1920, an estimated 28,493,000 people immigrated into the US from Europe alone (16). In 1920, there was an estimated 106,021,537 people inhabiting the US (17,18). The year (1956) that the recommendations changed in favor of grains and in opposition to fats, there was an estimated 168,903,031 people inhabiting the US (19). This means that the US population increased 37% from 1920 to 1956. Small farmers were initially able to supply food to everybody who inhabited the country. However, by the perpetual influx of people, and increased corporate power, small farmers were slowly becoming obsolete by the major agriculture corporations. Small farmers, and their agricultural practices of the time, seemingly could not keep up with the demands of the increased population. This is not to say that there aren’t agricultural practices out there that could suffice for maintaining small farms though; there certainly are. But the fact that the population drastically increased, during the time of the boomers, is serious enough to remain a factor in the food recommendation changes.

US population Increase from 1790

Dr. Ancel Keys

2. Like I’ve stated before, Dr. Ancel Key’s Lipid Hypothesis probably had a lot to do with the food recommendation changes, and conveniently tied in with the interests of the agricultural industry. This is not to say that there was a conspiracy, but the hypothesis still supported the displacement of dietary fat with carbohydrate in the diet, which is rather suspicious. The largest US supply of carbohydrate came from grains, aside from sugar cane (which obviously wasn’t a popular choice). Dr. Ancel Keys hypothesized that fat and cholesterol caused heart disease, and atherosclerosis (arterial plaque build-up) (20,21). Keys searched the globe, and accumulated data from 22 different countries (22,23). This data presented: (1) deaths from coronary heart disease, and (2) fat consumption per capita. He matched the data, and noticed that his graph was scattered everywhere. In other words, the correlation between fat consumption and coronary heart disease was not statistically significant. Nevertheless, Dr. Keys, with his strong views and propensity towards supporting his goals, placed emphasis on the 7 countries, which did have a correlation between fat and coronary heart disease, and he published an epidemiological study called the “7 Country Study” that same year. In 1956, the American Heart Association informed people of the purported dangers of animal fat and cholesterol consumption, based on this study. Then, in 1961, Keys was placed on the cover of Time Magazine, and the lipid hypothesis became popular nation-wide. Dr. Ancel Keys further recommended replacing saturated fats like butter, animal fat, coconut oil, etc, with polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil (21). These oils clearly were another cash crop for the agricultural industry, and aided in its economic growth. Dr. Ancel Keys was unsurprisingly added as a board member to the American Heart Association, while others were dropped. If only 7 out of the 22 countries studied supported Keys’s hypothesis, wouldn’t it be safe to say that coronary heart disease and high serum cholesterol levels are mostly mutually exclusive? The lipid hypothesis, along with Dr. Ancel Keys’s recommendations of grains/seeds as health foods further supported the USDA’s food recommendations from 1956 to 1980, and quite possibly was a strong catalyst for its development.

3. After Ancel Keys’s hypothesis was popularized, it spread like a wildfire. Although there never was conclusive evidence showing that the lipid hypothesis was true (its still a hypothesis), the American Heart Association jumped on the lipid hypothesis bandwagon, and strove to support its grain recommendations with research. Several studies were released in the 60’s and on, which demonstrated that soluble fiber lowers the concentration of cholesterol in the serum (24). Since whole grains are high in soluble and insoluble fiber, authorities recommended them for both heart and digestive health (24).

“A recent report prepared for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) describes > 50 studies with soluble fibers and concludes that ‘soluble fibers such as pectin, guar gum, locust bean gum, oat gum, or psyllium mucilloid significantly reduce serum total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels with little effect on high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels.’ (7) In short term dietary trials, the addition of soluble fiber from oats, oat bran, psyllium, pectin, and selected gums (guar, acacia, locust bean, and karaya) reduced serum cholesterol 6-19%, on average.” -(Am J Clin Nutr 1990)

This research created an environment, where low-priced cereal grains were marketed as health food, reducing serum cholesterol, and supporting digestion. The fact that soluble fibers could also be found in fruit, and vegetables was largely ignored by the mainstream. Had there been more emphasis for studies on the soluble fiber of fruit and vegetables at the time, I wonder if there would have been as much reverence given to cereal grains. All the cholesterol research based on grains, with millions of dollars spent, begs the question; was it all worth it if Keys’s hypothesis was false? Doesn’t it sound a lot more reasonable to implement a large-scale plan that affects millions of people, which is based on scientific law, rather than hypothesis? Doesn’t it stand to reason that actual conclusions need to be established before recommendations are made? Nevertheless, the studies, which showed that grain consumption, and more specifically, soluble fiber, lowered serum cholesterol played a significant role in the increased grain recommendations of the USDA.

4. Besides the first Whitecastle, opened in 1921, fast food restaurants took off in the late 40’s, and through the 50’s and 60’s. Americans’ perception of foods that were originally thought to be unhealthy was changing. American people began accepting the widespread consumption of fast foods such as cheeseburgers, french fries, hot dogs, cheese steaks, and soft drinks. As the hard-hitting, fast paced society of the industrialized US increased, along with the woman’s liberation movement, it became difficult to maintain a household, with children under the roof of a single working parent. As women became more incorporated into the workforce, and parents had limited time to prepare meals at home, more reliance on fast food restaurants, and prepared/packaged meals seemed like a plausible solution, despite the health consequences. Grains, seeds, and legumes were heavily incorporated into these foods. As supermarkets and fast food restaurants (among other restaurants) increased in quantity, so did the demands for subsidized food, and the dependence on the agriculture industry. As the lipid hypothesis took effect, restaurants began to switch from using saturated fats like palm kernel oil, saturated lard, and tallow, to unsaturated fats such as cottonseed, canola, peanut, and soybean oil. These oils were (and still are) made from heavily subsidized food such as grains and soybeans. As a result, even more dependence on the agricultural industry ensued. Corporate food production companies (not saying any names), which provide goods for supermarkets and fast food restaurants (and other restaurants) increased through monetary success, and the quantification of food over the quality.

Earl L. Butz

5. As the demands for low-priced, subsidized food increased from multiple angles, the agricultural industry rose larger than ever. Sustained growth of the agricultural industry, was initially spurred by chemical fertilizer production, then major seed / pesticide production corporations (10). Chemical fertilizer, and the widespread use of pesticides, gave industrialized agriculture ample advantage over smaller family-run farms. Government subsidies have been sparingly supporting the farming industry since the latter part of the 19th century, however after the1930’s, Congress increased subsidies when farmers were in economic distress, and eventually the subsidization of farming became very exorbitant. After a while, government subsidies began supporting the agricultural industry in the most peculiar fashion, frequently supporting individuals who simply owned bits of arable land, and were not actually working farmers. In the end, government subsidies supported farming, which was meant for mass production of products, net gain of profits, rather than the quality of the food; exceeding the population’s needs, even when the population wasn’t increasing much at all. Subsidies such as direct payments, and marketing loans, specifically covered 8 crops; wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, rice, soybeans, those which were (and still are) the simplest/cheapest to produce and easiest to manipulate (25). These crops, all throughout the 19th and 20th century, were increasingly produced through mono-crop practices, of which required millions of dollars of pesticides annually to maintain. Chemical corporations fed into this system, producing the wherewithal to maintain it. Evidently, as small farmers sank, the larger corporations of the agriculture industry rose, and rose quickly. President Nixon appointed Earl L. Butz as the Secretary of Agriculture, in 1971. Earl’s famous quote “adapt, or die,” spoke volumes for the intent the agricultural industry had for the United States, and it’s small, family-run farmers.

History from 1979 to 2011

1979 "Hassle Free" Food GuideIn 1979, the USDA developed the Hassle-Free Food Guide Diet, which consisted of 5 food groups and suggested that people consume 2 servings of milk, 2 servings of meat, 4 servings of bread/cereal,and 4 servings of fruit and vegetables. Fats, sweets, and alcohol were dependent on calorie needs. These recommendations were virtually identical to the previous Basic Four Foundation Diet.

The history of food guides really gets interesting in 1984, when the 1984 Food Wheel: A Pattern for Daily Food Choices was created. This food wheel suggested daily intakes of 2-3 servings of dairy, 2-3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, or nuts,6-11 servings of breads, cereals, rice, or pasta,3-5 servings of vegetables, and 2-4 servings of fruit. Sweets varied to calorie needs, and fats were not to exceed 30% of total calories. There were slight increases in the recommendations for the milk and meat food groups, and large increases in the fruit and vegetable groups. The largest increase in recommendations was seen in the grains. Recommendations for grains (breads, cereals, rice, pasta) increased from 4 servings per day in the Basic Four, and Hassle-Free Food Guide diets, to 6-11 servings in the 1984 Food Wheel. These are obviously drastic changes in food recommendations, and it seems that what was already covered in this article (net profit gain, overproduction, subsidization, lipid hypothesis) was in full effect. What's really intriguing, is that the serving sizes and weights did not change.

1984 Food WheelIn other words, in 1956, the serving size/weight for grains was both 1 slice of bread, ½-3/4 cups, and 1oz of any other type of grain respectively. These same serving sizes were suggested in the 1984 pyramid, even though grain recommendations more than doubled again. I am not going to go into the probable reasons why the grain recommendations doubled because I believe that they are for the same reasons that they doubled in the 50’s (population increase, lipid hypothesis, cholesterol studies, increased demand of low priced, subsidized food, and the growth of the agricultural industry). Looking further into the increased grain recommendations would be redundant. (26)

1992 Food Guide Pyramid

In 1992, the first Food Guide Pyramid was set in stone. Nothing really changed in the 1992 pyramid; the recommendations were the exact same as the 1984 Food Wheel, except that fats, oils, and sweets were to be used sparingly, and the food guide was modulated into a pyramid, instead of a wheel. New emphasis was placed on color (to show variety of food), clear food illustrations, moderation, and clear proportions. In 2005, the pyramid changed again to MyPyramid Food Guidance System, and a clear emphasis was placed on exercise, with the ascending stair climber. The new food recommendations were not as clear-cut, and it seems as though authorities felt that the general public “should” already know what each color suggested in the rainbow pyramid. And still, the food recommendations remained virtually the same. (27)

In 2011, the USDA introduced MyPlate, which is what is used today. MyPlate is just about as straightforward as the 2005 pyramid, but a little more clear-cut in its color scheme. The visual cues included in MyPlate are much easier to understand than MyPyramid. The fact that there are written words for the foods (not always the case with MyPyramid) suggested makes it somewhat easier to follow, although it is difficult to really interpret what the USDA and ADA suggest in terms of serving sizes. The illustrations on MyPlate, without a clear dissemination of food groups and portion sizes, suggest a more imprudent attitude of daily food intakes. It appears that MyPlate is more of a meal planning guide, rather than a daily food guide. (28)


The developmental history of the USDA food guides is rather insightful. Acknowledging that the USDA food guides, which have always been lobbied by the agricultural industry, are not only far from a definitive way of eating, but have always been consistently changing, is very useful. And we can gain much wisdom from this. Originally the guides had low to moderate grain recommendations, and throughout the food guide evolution, grain recommendations increased nearly threefold. Fruit and vegetable recommendations also increased about a threefold as well. Apparently throughout the evolution of the food guides, a plant-based diet was adopted, with high consumption of grains, fruits, and vegetables, and low amounts of animal foods, such as meat, and butter. This is merely more of an observation than a criticism.


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24. Bell, L., Hectorn, K., Reynolds, H., & Hunninghake, D. (1990). Cholesterol-lowering effects of soluble-fiber cereals as part of a prudent diet for patients with mild to moderate hypercholesterolemia. (52 ed., Vol. 1020-6). Am J Clin Nutr, American Society for Clinical Nutrition.
25. Moltzen, K., & Nestle, M. (2009). Subsidies and “specialty” crops: An analysis of the current state of U.S. agricultural policy. (33 ed., Vol. 2300-001). New York:
26. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service. Healthy People: The Surgeon Generals Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. DHEW (PHS) Publication No. 79-55071, 1979
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28. United States Department of Agriculture, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion 2010, MyPlate
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