Image of a plate of food containing rice, tomatoes and fish.

From food pyramids to “MyPlate”: USDA food guides and what they mean for you

If you grew up in the United States, you might remember the food pyramid: a black pyramid divided up into six sections with little pictures of food in each block. But much like the ancient Egyptian pyramids, the U.S. Food Guide Pyramid has changed over time. Today it looks completely different than it did when it was first created.

A brief history of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid

The USDA Food Guide Pyramid was developed in 1992 to help Americans structure how they ate. And it was helpful, but not entirely accurate or clear, so in 2005 the food pyramid got revised to become a food guide called MyPyramid.

MyPyramid was supposed to be a fun ‘cool-kid-on-the-block’ version of the food pyramid, but it turned out to be too confusing for people to easily and correctly use. This brings us to our current food guide: MyPlate.

MyPlate is used today in the U.S. to show dietary recommendations. MyPlate portrays a dining plate divided up into four sections, with a circle to the side of the plate – meant to resemble a cup that’s paired with the plate – to represent dairy. While the food pyramid is a little more fun to look at, MyPlate is more realistic. After all, how are you supposed to plan a meal based off a pyramid?

Out with the old, in with the new

All of this might be confusing, but don’t worry: everything in MyPlate can be simplified. Here are the new-and-improved MyPlate suggestions, based on an average calorie intake.

  • Fruits and vegetables: Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables. Fruit can be canned, frozen, or sometimes dried, but fruit juice should be avoided. Vegetables are divided into 5 subgroups: dark-green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables. Vary the kinds of fruit and vegetables that you eat over the week. For many adults, 2-3 cups is a good amount of vegetables, and 2 cups is a good amount of fruit for any given day.
  • Grains: Grains should be about a quarter of your plate, and at least half of the grains that you eat should be whole grains. For many women, about 6 ounces a day is a good amount of grains.
  • Protein sources: Foods that contain adequate amounts of protein should make up the final quarter of your plate. Protein can come from meat, poultry, seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, processed soy, and seeds. Meat and poultry should be low-fat. In general, 5-6 ounces of protein a day is a good target for adults.
  • Dairy: Milk products that retain their calcium are considered good dairy products. Calcium-fortified soy products are also included. In general, it’s recommended that people choose low-fat dairy products. About 3 cups of dairy per day is healthy for most adults.
  • Oils: Oils aren’t considered a food group, but they do provide some important nutrients. You can add oil to a meal or get it from foods that are high in healthy oils, like nuts, olives, certain kinds of fish, and avocados. It’s important to remember that since many foods contain healthy oils, you usually don’t have to go too far out of your way to get more. About 6-7 teaspoons is often a good daily amount of healthy oils for an adult.

Other words of wisdom from MyPlate

The recommendations that come along with MyPlate also contain some general nutrition advice. Here are the main points:

  • Pay attention to the variety, amount, and type of foods that you eat.
  • Buy foods that are low in – or empty of – saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
  • Don’t focus so much on eating perfectly; instead, make small changes and continue to make healthy choices that improve your diet. Even little steps are good for your body.
  • Make sure to get adequate amounts of physical activity every day.

The bottom line

Of course, nothing’s perfect, and MyPlate is no exception. Since it was released there have been a variety of criticisms aimed at the image. For example, if you exercise a lot, these recommendations may prove too low. But overall, experts tend to agree that it’s a strong improvement over the problematic food pyramid. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can take away from all these guidelines in order to structure an enjoyable, balanced diet. And, as mentioned above, don’t focus on perfection or feel like to refer to the guidelines every time you eat either. It’s up to you to decide how you can healthily balance your meals, and to be mindful of how many nutrients you’re getting over the course of a week. In other words, it’s up to you to choose how you make it ‘MyPlate.’ As always, if you have any questions about these recommendations or what a balanced, nutritious diet might look like for you, make sure to speak with your healthcare provider.

  • “The Food Guide Pyramid.” CNPP. Home and Garden Bulletin no. 252, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Oct 1996. Web. Accessed 10/26/17. Available at
  • “MyPlate.” United States Department of Agriculture, Apr 2017. Web. Accessed 10/26/17. Available at

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