Grab Your Fork and Travel Back in Time With These Old USDA Dietary Guidelines

Wheels, pyramids and plates—dietary recommendations have come a long way in the last century

Basic Seven
USDA/Public Domain

What should you eat today? If it's up to the USDA, you'll fill your plate with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, cut your sugar to fewer than ten percent of the calories you consume, and limit saturated fat. The agency just released its 2015 guidelines, following its tradition of updating dietary recommendations every five years.

While experts chew on what the new recommendations mean, why not take a look at the recommended plates of yesteryear? Here's how USDA dietary advice has changed over the years:

1894: Farmer's Bulletin

The USDA first got into the food recommendation game in 1894, when it published a farmer's bulletin, which layed out general considerations for how food should be thought about and consumed. The guide touted milk as coming "nearest to being a perfect food" and noted that "a man might live on beef alone, but it would be a very one-sided and imperfect diet." It made recommendations based on a person's profession—for example, a "man at moderate work" should consume 3,160 calories per day, while an "adult in full health" should consume 3,140 calories per day.

1917: How to Select Foods

The agency took its advice one step further in 1917, when it developed a guidebook for housekeepers. It laid out five food groups: Fruits and vegetables, meats and other protein-rich foods, cereals and other starchy foods, sweets, and fatty foods. "Remember that a quart of whole milk a day for each child, to be used as a beverage and in cookery, is not too much," it warned.

1940s: The Basic Seven

During World War II, the USDA helped Americans adjust to food shortages. To make sure nobody became nutrient deficient from rationing, the agency implemented "The Basic Seven," a food chart intended to help maintain good nutrition on a national level. Oddly, the chart separated vegetables into multiple categories: green and yellow, a category consisting just of oranges, tomatoes and grapefruit, and "other."

1956: Food for Fitness

By the mid 1950s, the USDA's food guide had become even more simple. It featured just four food groups: milk, vegetables and fruits, meats, and bread and cereals. The 1956 guide recommended as many servings of bread as fruits and vegetables and admonished readers to "try to have some meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or milk at every meal."

1979: Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide

In 1979, the number of food groups grew by one with the introduction of a group intended to promote the moderate consumption of things like alcohol, sweets and fat. But even as the USDA introduced its new guide, the agency began to tinker with other ways of laying out what American should eat every day.

1984: The Food Wheel

By the mid 1980s, the USDA decided to go for a "whole diet" approach to eating. They developed a graphic called the Food Wheel for a Red Cross course in nutrition. The wheel was intended to help people put the guidelines into action. "The Food Wheel was developed for the most healthy people in the United States," the poster bragged.

1992: Food Guide Pyramid

In response to changing research and nutritional information, the USDA introduced a new graphic, the Food Guide Pyramid, in 1992. The pyramid was touted as providing consumers "practical information at their fingertips" and lauded for its clear advice, which included basing the diet on six to 11 daily servings of grains.

2005: MyPyramid

New era, new food pyramid—the USDA's 2005 update to its guidelines included a vertical look and a stair-climbing person to represent the need for physical activity. This new pyramid also included measurements for servings in cups instead of ounces. It had a whopping eight groups—physical activity, grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milks, and meat and beans.

2011: MyPlate

Today's dietary recommendations are presented the way most people will consume them—on a plate. The MyPlate concept was introduced in 2011 and gives consumers a visual guide as to how a plate should be constructed: half vegetables and fruit, with smaller portions of grains, protein and dairy. What will the visualization of the future look like? Grab a healthy snack: There's no telling how long you'll have to wait to see food in a new way.