The History of USDA Nutrition Guides

The evolution of the USDA's food guides over the years can be analyzed by asking one of two questions: where have we been and where are we going? Guides, pyramids, wheels — whatever you want to call them — were all introduced for one purpose: to provide consumers with a guideline on how to eat a nutritionally-balanced meal.

The evolution of the United States Department of Agriculture's food guides over the years can be analyzed by asking one of two questions: where have we been and where are we going?

Guides, pyramids, wheels — whatever you want to call them — were all introduced for one purpose: to provide consumers with a guideline on how to eat a nutritionally-balanced meal.

But while most Americans are familiar with the food pyramid that held status from 1992 to 2011 — when it was replaced with the MyPlate that we have today — not many people know the vast history of food guides.


During this time, Food for Young Children and How to Select Food were established by the USDA to help guide consumers on food group purchases and household measures. 

The children's guide, created by nutritionist Caroline Hunt, was a widely recognized nutrition education tool that helped to translate nutritional recommendations into a healthy amount of food to eat each day.

Hunt categorized foods into milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruits; fats and fatty foods; and sugars and sugary foods. 

How to Select Your Food was created in 1917 and promoted these same five food groups to adults. 

These guidelines remained in place through the 1920s. Then, in 1933 the USDA introduced food plans at four different cost levels in response to the Great Depression.

In 1941, the first Recommended Dietary Allowances were created, listing specific intakes for calories, protein, iron, calcium and vitamins.


The USDA created the "Basic Seven"  to help promote seven major food groups, which consisted of:

  1. Green and yellow vegetables: Some raw, some cooked, some frozen and some canned.
  2. Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit: Also included raw cabbage and salad greens.
  3. Potatoes and other veggies, and fruits: Raw, dried, cooked, frozen or canned.
  4. Milk and milk products: Fluid, evaporated, dried milk or cheese.
  5. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs: This group also included dried beans, peas, nuts or peanut butter.
  6. Bread, cereals and flour: Natural whole grain, or enriched or restored.
  7. Butter and fortified margarine: With added Vitamin A.

Since this nutritional guide was created in 1943, the purpose was to maintain nutritional standards under wartime food rationing.

Also called A Guide to Good Eating, the "Basic Seven" was a foundation diet for nutrient adequacy. While it included a daily number of servings needed for each of the food groups though, it lacked specific serving sizes.

Consumers found this guide to be pretty complex, according to the USDA.


In 1956 came the "Basic Four." 

Also called Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide, the "Basic Four" were a step up from the seven food groups because the recommendations now included specified amounts from all four food groups. 

The guide still, however, did not include guidance on appropriate fats, sugars and calorie intake.

The groups included:

  1. Vegetables and fruits: Recommended as excellent sources of vitamins C and A, and a good source of fiber. A dark-green or deep-yellow vegetable or fruit was recommended for consumption every other day.
  2. Milk: Recommended as a good source of calcium, phosphorus, protein, riboflavin and sometimes vitamins A and D. Cheese, ice cream and iced milk could sometimes replace milk.
  3. Meat: This was recommended for its protein, iron and certain B vitamins. The group included meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dry beans, dry peas and peanut butter.
  4. Cereals and Breads: Whole grain and enriched breads were especially recommended as they were seen as good sources of iron, B vitamins and carbohydrates, as well as protein and fiber. This group also included cereals, breads, cornmeal, macaroni, noodles, rice and spaghetti.

When this was created, it was easy enough for people to "get" and that was the point. Make it easy enough for the average consumer to understand and Bingo! you've got a food guide that pleases the country.

But then, in the 1970s research began making a case that the over consumption of certain foods, like fat and cholesterol, increased chances for heart disease and diabetes. This caused the USDA to attempt to even further modify the guidelines. Although this request was met with scorn and ridicule by the meat and dairy industries, eventually we realigned the recommendations and ended up with the Food Pyramid.


A Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide was developed after the 1977 Dietary Goals for the U.S. were released. 

While it was based on the "Basic Four," it also included a fifth group to help highlight the need to moderate intake of fats, sweets and alcohol.


In 1984, consumers were provided with a total diet approach, known as the Food Wheel: A Pattern For Daily Food ChoicesThe guide included goals for both nutrient adequacy and moderation, with daily amounts of food provided at three calorie levels.

Five major food groups and amounts helped form the basis for the Food Pyramid.


The introduction of the USDA's Food Pyramid attempted to express the recommended servings of each food group, which previous guides did not do.

It was developed using consumer research to help bring awareness to the new food patterns. 

Suggestions now included eating:

  • 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta
  • 3 to 5 servings of vegetables
  • 2 to 4 servings of fruit
  • 2 to 3 servings of milk, yogurt and cheese
  • 2 to 3 servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts
  • And sparingly, fats, oils and sweets.


Goodbye, pyramid. Hello, plate.

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement that the almost 20-year-old food pyramid would be replaced by a new icon: MyPlate.

MyPlate is a new generation icon with the intent to prompt consumers to think about building a healthy plate at meal times and to seek more information to help them do that by going to

The icon emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy groups. 

When you click on a specific group, the site provides you with an overview about the food(s), the nutrients and health benefits, the suggested daily amounts, and tips to get started on certain foods.

The Future

With evolving consumer tastes and the need for transparency of all food and beverage products on the market, I can only assume the guidelines will once again be revised in years to come.

Will future guidelines suggest organic, non-GMO foods? How will consumer advocacy groups who rally against artificial ingredients and additives affect the way the government sees "healthy" food choices? 

While no one can know what the future will hold, you can't help but wonder if nutritional guidelines will stay the same for years to come, change drastically to meet consumer demands, or seize completely.

What do you think? Do you currently seek advice and use the MyPlate suggestions? Why or why not? Comment below or email me at