The New Food Pyramid — Revisiting Ideas on Nutrition

The New Food Pyramid — Revisiting Ideas on Nutrition

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The idea of eating healthy and balanced meals goes back to the beginning of modern time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) produced multiple publications beginning in 1894 to educate the American public about good, healthy eating, dietary standards and food composition. The food groups have changed many times, but the concept of a balanced diet has not.

Balance and Portions

The USDA recently revised the old food pyramid (1984-2004) to reflect the change in dietary habits. In the current American culture where low carbohydrate diets reign, no longer is the USDA advocating eating the highest number of servings — six or more — of breads and cereals. Instead of serving suggestions, the newest Food Pyramid (2005) reflects the portions in which the food groups should be eaten.

In 21st century America, the concept of a serving size is skewed. This is best represented by the concept of “super sizing” meals. Often, Americans have no reference as to what a normal portion is. Even with the addition of nutrition labels on all processed foods, it is very difficult to recognize one ounce or one cup.

The American Cancer Society’s web site sheds some light on how to determine serving sizes:


The Look of Normal Portion Sizes

  • 1 oz. meat: size of a matchbox
  • 3 oz. meat: size of a deck of cards or bar of soap—the recommended portion for a meal
  • 8 oz. meat: size of a thin paperback book
  • 3 oz. fish: size of a checkbook
  • 1 oz. cheese: size of 4 dice
  • Medium potato: size of a computer mouse
  • 2 Tbs. peanut butter: size of a ping pong ball
  • 1 cup pasta: size of a tennis ball
  • Average bagel: size of a hockey puck.

Size Matters

The nutritional requirements for Americans in the 1940’s were based on the assumptions that a man weighed 70 kg (154 lbs.) and a woman weighed 56 kg (123 lbs.) Today, however, the average weight for an American man is 80 kg (176 lbs.) and for an American woman, 70 kg (154 lbs.). A 1940’s nutritional guide recognizes varying degrees of activity level: Very Active, Moderately Active and Sedentary. The amount of caloric intake one needs is based on the individual’s activity level. What was true 60 years ago is still true today. This concept of “input = output” is incorporated into the newest version of the Food Pyramid with the addition of the staircase on the side of the pyramid. According to the USDA, this represents the need for exercise in addition to healthy eating.


USDA Publication c. pre-1940

Here, in a USDA publication pre-1940, the food groups mentioned are:

1) Vegetables and Fruits;

2) Milk, Eggs, Fish, Meat, Cheese, Beans, Peas, Peanuts;

3) Cereals – Corn Meal, Oatmeal, Rice, Bread;

4) Sugar, Syrups, Jelly, Honey; and

5) Fats – Butter, margarine, Cottonseed Oil, Olive Oil, Drippings, Suet.

While today we may not use items like drippings and suet (raw beef fat), the idea is the same. Balance, balance, balance.

The concept of balance in size and variety are old ideas revisited by modern dietary habits. Each day as you choose what to eat, think in terms of the how much you eat as well as variety in your diet. The new Food Pyramid does not discourage eating candy or french fries, but instead recommends these foods in moderation. Also, make sure the demands of your activity level match the quantity you eat. These simple ideas of nutrition that were once old are new again.



  1. Controlling Portion Sizes: As Meals Swell to “Super-Size,” So Do American Waistlines. American Cancer Society.
  2. Historical Food Guides Background and Development. United States Department of Agriculture.
  3. The New Food Guide Pyramid. The Nemours Foundation.

Pamela Goldman
Philadelphia, PA

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