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The evolution of U.S. nutritional guidelines – a work in progress

U.S. nutritional guidelines have changed over time, and hopefully will continue to change as we get smarter on what constitutes a healthy approach to nutrition. When you look back at the history of the guidelines, science and "pseudo science" were drivers for evolving dietary recommendations, but so were politics, economics, farm-subsidies, industrial lobbyists and, at one time, concerns over national malnutrition. Today, concerns over malnutrition have been long been replaced with concerns over national obesity, and the plurality of disease that goes hand-in-hand with obesity.

A brief history of U.S. Nutritional Guidelines

The first U.S nutritional guideline was published in 1894 by an agricultural chemist, Wilber Atwater.  Mr. Atwater used the concept of calorie management to develop a strategy for efficient eating. The original guidelines focused on moderation, variety and proportion.  It focused on eating beans, protein, fruits and vegetables with less consumption of fats, carbohydrates and sweets.  These guidelines evolved a bit as vitamins were discovered and to create a strategy for healthy, economic eating during the great depression.

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The Basic 7

During World War II, the U.S. came out with new guidelines focusing on seven food groups that would help families eat nutritionally and stay within the restrictions of rationing during the war.


I like the slogan at the bottom of the promotion piece - "In addition to the basic 7... eat any other foods you want."


4 Basic food groups

If you are my age you will remember the 4 basic food groups:  breads and cereals; meat; dairy; and fruits and vegetables. These guidelines were established in 1956 and reined king all the way until 1992. For 36 years moms and public school cafeterias focused on getting some of each of these four food groups into every meal. Portions were recommended, but there was little focus on fats or sugars.


In the mid-70's Dr. Ancel Keyes had the ear of the government and successfully promoted his theory that fat caused heart disease, cancer and obesity. This theory was never proven with a scientific study, and was challenged by many of Dr. Keyes peers.  Despite the scientific controversy, the theory that fat was a nutritional time bomb, became widely accepted, resulting in dietary recommendations that all Americans increase their carbohydrate intake to 55-60% of their daily calories.

The Food Pyramid

In 1992, still without scientific evidence, the low-fat advocates won a big victory and the U.S. published the Food Pyramid, directing Americans to significantly increase their carbohydrates intake and minimize their fats. The goal was to reduce obesity and disease. But guess what? Americans have gotten fatter and sicker since the food pyramid was implemented. In 1960 13% of Americans were obese.  Today 26% of us are obese. Between 1980 and 2006, diabetes rates have tripled. Hmmm, maybe it is time to reconsider the low-fat, high-carb approach?  And what about sugar, corn syrup, soda and highly processed white foods?

My Pyramid

In 2005, the food pyramid was modified and renamed My Pyramid. This time only six food groups are highlighted, with carbohydrates still representing the largest single category, but the combination of fruits and vegetables is larger than in the old pyramid.  A small cap to the pyramid represents foods to be limited, including sweets and alcohol. For the first time exercise is added to dietary recommendations, represented by the figure climbing stairs on one side of the pyramid. My Pyramid also individualizes portions by providing calculations of portions depending on your age, sex and level of physical activity.

My Plate

In 2011, the Federal government came out with the latest nutritional guidelines, called My Plate.  My Plate suggests 50% of your plate comes from fruits and vegetables. The My Plate guidelines include a variety of tips, including eating less in general, eating more whole grains, less salt, eating fewer processed foods and avoiding sugary drinks. I think the U.S. guidelines are moving in the right direction, but there are a lot of dietary recommendations that still lack good science.  Some long held beliefs, such as "fat makes you fat" and "milk does a body good" are increasingly up for scientific debate. I am sure in 20 years we will look back and ask ourselves "what were we thinking?" 

My approach - for what it is worth

  • Eat and cook with whole foods, not food that comes out of a box or can.
  • If you are buying boxed, non-whole foods, read the label before you make your purchase decision.
  • Eat lots of vegetables and fruits (meaning more veggies than fruits, as vegetables are lower glycemic index than fruit).
  • Eat your colors to get a variety of natural nutrients.
  • Eat high quality protein with most meals, including eggs.
  • Eat omega-3 rich foods, including sustainable fish, nuts and avocados.
  • Cook primarily with high quality olive oil, and a little butter now and then.
  • Cook with a wide variety of spices for flavor and nutritional benefits.
  • Minimize white foods and high glycemic index foods.
  • Cheese and chocolate are very good things in moderation.
  • Salt your food when cooking, but avoid pre-salted processed food.
  • Eat the majority of your meals at home.
  • Don't focus on calories, focus on the quality and portions of your food.
  • Listen to your body - if certain foods make you feel ill, avoid them.
  • Enjoy an occasional treat and never feel guilty about it.

I am sure I don't have it all right. But it works for me. 


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