Should the Food Pyramid We Grew Up with Still Inform the Way We Plan Our Meals?

Spoiler alert: That triangle has a new name and look.

woman preparing healthy meal in kitchen
Photo: mapodile / Getty Images

The food pyramid, which was originally created and shared by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1992, has undergone a major upgrade over the past few decades. What was once the gold standard—it provided daily serving recommendations for each food group—has since been updated to something called MyPlate (which even comes with an app!). Unlike its predecessor, MyPlate focuses more on creating and consuming balanced meals, as opposed to food groups. That doesn't mean that the way we think about nutrition now has completely changed, though. Ahead, learn how that food pyramid informed our current model and discover the takeaways from both iterations.

The food pyramid wasn't all that intuitive.

The original food pyramid was comprised of what looked like levels or building blocks—the base level (grains) was the largest because the carbohydrates from grains were, per generational recommendations, supposed to provide the majority of the calories and fiber we need each day, explains Alyssa Pike, RD, the senior manager of nutrition communications on the International Food Information Council. "The second level was split between fruits and vegetables; the third was for dairy and other protein sources; and at the top of the pyramid (indicating that this group would contribute the least calories) was fats," she says.

Meet MyPlate, which offers a streamlined way to build a meal.

Today's model, says Pike, relies on a plate for visual purposes (hence the aptly named MyPlate). "MyPlate is a bit more practical than previous versions of food advice in that it helps people to quickly visualize what a plate for each meal should look like," she says. According to Serena Poon, a celebrity chef and nutritionist, MyPlate is a better option: It places a greater emphasis on a balanced meal composed of vegetables (30 percent), fruits (20 percent), grains (30 percent) and proteins (20 percent). "This is an improved approach, but it still doesn't account for fats or for quality, which can be important in terms of the healthfulness," notes Poon.

The old rules aren't fully inaccurate—but this newer model is better.

MyPlate is considered a simpler, more evolved, and more accurate version of what makes up a healthy meal, says Poon. So while following the food pyramid likely won't hurt, it's less straightforward. "The food pyramid was an image of a pyramid with several levels representing recommended daily quantities of certain categories of food," Poon says. "MyPlate recommendations are per meal and help people visualize how to divide up their plate—50 percent vegetables and fruits, 50 percent protein and grains, and a splash of dairy on the side." That's a lot clearer than trying to figure out exactly how many servings or calories those percentages work out to be.

Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, no matter what.

No matter which method you use to balance your meals, Poon says there are some staples you should always aim to fill up on. "Focus on vegetables and fruits," she says. "These foods supply necessary vitamins and minerals, along with fiber and antioxidants that support optimal health and longevity."

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