U.S.D.A. Unveils Updated ‘Food Pyramid’ To Depict a Healthy Diet

By Ellen Flax — May 06, 1992 2 min read

After a yearlong delay, the Department of Agriculture last week released an updated “food pyramid’’ as its new symbol for communicating the elements of a healthy diet to schoolchildren and other Americans.

The new symbol--which graphically shows that a healthy diet should contain more bread, cereal, and pasta than meat and other high-fat items--is designed to replace the familiar pie-shaped symbol of the four food groups that has been a staple in American classrooms since the 1950’s.

The pie-shaped symbol, in contrast, is designed to show that a good diet can be obtained by eating a variety of foods.

The new symbol was scheduled to have been released last spring. But, after receiving complaints from the meat and dairy industry that the pyramid discouraged consumption of their products, department officials decided at the last minute to subject the graphic to further review. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

A year and an $855,000 study later, the department again concluded that the pyramid, as opposed to several other graphics tested, including a bowl, shopping cart, and pie chart, most effectively showed that healthy eaters should reduce their consumption of fats, oils, and sugary foods.

“The new graphic conveys the three essential elements of a healthy diet: proportion, moderation, and variety,’' Agriculture Secretary Edward R. Madigan said last week.

The new pyramid, just like the pyramid that was rejected last year and other long-time federal diet guidelines, suggest that a healthy daily diet includes: 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 both dairy products and meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and infrequent servings of fats, oils, and sweets.

33 Changes

Both the old pyramid and the new “Food Guide Pyramid’’ depict the bread and grain category at the base, and fruits and vegetables on the next, narrower level. Meat and dairy products are depicted on the third level, and a triangle representing high-fat and sugary foods topped both pyramids.

The new pyramid, however, contains 33 subtle changes, department officials said. For example, a plate of spaghetti replaces a picture of a bowl of macaroni that some had thought were hot dogs, and the picture depicting cheese resembles slices of Swiss instead of a wedge of cake.

Officials said they decided to make the changes, as well as to retain the pyramid, after questioning 3,017 children and adults nationwide about the various proposed symbols and the foods depicted on them.

Unlike the original pyramid, which was tested on a predominantly middle-income audience with at least a high-school education, the new symbol was tested on a disproportionately lower-income group.

The department acknowledged that the new pyramid still contains some flaws: Both the protein and dairy categories do not distinguish between high- and low-fat items, and the graphic does not show that salt consumption should be reduced.

Officials noted that additional nutrition material that will be distributed to schools, health, and consumer groups will contain such information.

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 1992 edition of Education Week as U.S.D.A. Unveils Updated ‘Food Pyramid’ To Depict a Healthy Diet