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The evolution of the food pyramid

By Jackie Rainford Corcoran Explore Big Sky Health Columnist

In 1992 the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the food pyramid, which presented “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” It was widely taught in schools and popularized on the backs of cereal boxes. According to the guidelines, fat was bad and carbohydrates were good (Remember the popularity of fat free “everything?”). The pyramid suggested 6-11 servings of carbs per day, and didn’t include fruit, which had it’s own category.

We now know that the information the USDA used was based on some shoddy science by Ancel Keys in the late 1970s. In his Seven Countries Study, a cornerstone project for how the USDA advised on fat and carbohydrate servings, Keys’ infamously cherry-picked the data that backed his theory and erased the data he didn’t like.

According to Luise Light, a former USDA insider and architect of the original Food Pyramid, the pyramid’s validity deteriorates further. In her article, “A Fatally Flawed Food Guide,” she claims that before the pyramid was released, the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture made radical changes to it, cutting the suggested 5-9 fresh fruit servings to 2-3, and emphasizing processed foods over fresh whole foods.

No one foresaw the potential harm these recommendations would have on American health such as contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In 2005, the USDA updated the pyramid, addressing the growing problem of sedentary lifestyles by adding a figure running up stairs. However, the rest of it makes little sense with pictures of food jumbled at the bottom of a colorful triangle (and why is milk it’s own food group?).

According to Marion Nestle, author of “Food Politics,” lobbying by the food industry made sure the serving suggestions stayed the same, with the exception of measuring in cups rather than ounces.

Enter Michelle Obama in 2011. She made a huge improvement on the “Dietary Guidelines” by turning the pyramid into a plate – simple common sense. “My Plate,” as it’s named, shows what a plate should look like.

Half the plate is devoted to fruits and veggies (oddly though, less than 1 percent of U.S. food subsidies go to fruit and vegetable farmers, while 63 percent goes to meat and dairy). The influence of big business is still apparent. Got milk? Fats are left out entirely and grain types are unspecified, misleading consumers to believe that a bagel has the same effect on the body as brown rice. Because whole grains have not been stripped of their bran and germ, which are nutrient-, protein- and fiber-rich, they are often more nutritious than the refined grains found in bread products.

Now, check out how the Institute for Integrative Nutrition capitalized on the simplicity of the plate but improved it and made it applicable to a holistic lifestyle IIN_plate(see graphic at left). Notice that the milk is replaced by water and fats are added (though still lacking the distinction between good and bad fats) and grains are specified as whole grains. But the most important addition is what’s listed outside the plate: career, relationship, spirituality and physical activity. This is where we truly find holistic health.

How does your plate compare? How does your lifestyle compare?

In the next article, I’ll give you a fun and empowering exercise that will help you evaluate whether or not your current lifestyle is well rounded.

Jackie Rainford Corcoran is an IIN Certified Holistic Health Coach, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, public speaker and health activist. Contact her at, or find more at

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