"The pyramid and its accompanying recommendations are the guiding principles behind much modern food legislation."

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The 2005 nutritional pyramid. Left to right, the represented food groups are grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and meat/beans. [Photograph: MyPyramid.gov]

Growing up, most of us learned the five basic food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy (with the occasional sweets and fats to supplement). The gridded triangular image (below) was hung on the walls of elementary schools, doctors' offices, and supermarkets nationwide. Unchanged for more than 30 years, the pyramid was familiar and recognizable to most.

Then in 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture released a newly designed food pyramid. This pyramid was shockingly different, featuring merging rays of color, each representing a food group, and an active man ascending a staircase (headed towards excellent health, one assumes). While more streamlined and eye-catching than the graphics-heavy original, the new pyramid has also been criticized for lack of clarity and poor nutritional recommendations.

On October 1, a new critique was published in the science journal Nutrition. The authors of the article, researchers and experts from a number of universities, were responding to a recent report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. They claim that the DGAC does not appropriately utilize recent scientific findings in their recommendations. Vague language in the pyramid encourages eaters to "eat more" fruits and veggies but "go easy" on high-sugar fruit juices. Such information is of limited help to those seeking concrete advice, and the report does little to address public health issues such as obesity and diabetes.

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The old food pyramid. [Photograph: mcgheezer on Flickr]

The first USDA-approved dietary recommendations were released in the 1950s, and look surprisingly similar to today's allotment. Four food groups were defined: daily, grains, proteins, and fruits/vegetables. Sounds familiar, right? Public health issues have changed dramatically in the last 50 years for instance, in the 1950s the USDA was concerned with an undernourished populace, whereas today we face an obesity epidemic. But the dietary guidelines have hardly budged, largely ignoring advances in nutritional science.

On the one hand, the food pyramid seems like a cliche, cartoony version of what we should really be eating. But the pyramid and its accompanying recommendations are the guiding principles behind much modern food legislation. At the policy level, school lunch recommendations come straight from the USDA pyramid. And in a broader scope, we can see influence from the nutritional guidelines within our subsidy system and research funding nation-wide.

Perhaps the food pyramid is too ingrained to erase from the system, or from our collective psyche. But with much critique of the current recommendations, it may be time to reconsider the correct proportion of nutrients in our diets. What do you think? Does the current system necessitate reform, or are these guidelines right on track?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.

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