A Brief History of U.S. Dietary Guidelines

USDA_Food_PyramidPrior to 1980, how in the world did anyone know how to eat? When you think of all the centuries, the millennia of human existence, how did the species manage to survive bumbling their way through day after day of undirected eating patterns? I’m guessing those of you who know me expected a few irreverent remarks when you read the title of today’s post. Still, I’ll try to keep myself on a short leash today. It’s a legitimate and even, in some regards, culturally (and probably politically) significant question: why were government dietary guidelines ever put in place—and what was the backstory of their uses and modifications over time? Finally, what perspective can it bring to our understanding of embracing a “niche” dietary model like the Primal Blueprint?

While the first official set of nutritional guidelines were published in 1980 as a joint effort of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and HHS (Department of Health and Human Services), earlier government issued reports had initiated the series and stoked federal involvement in nutritional “policy.” You could trace a long history of discussion and publication leading up to these developments, but I’ll stick with the more recent events for my purpose today.

The Origins of Government Recommendations

In the late 1960s, a public push for addressing hunger in poorer pockets of the country spurred the creation of a bipartisan “Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs” that existed from 1968-1977. Chaired by Senator George McGovern, the committee’s initial proposed aim would eradicate hunger and malnutrition in the United States. Committee members in the early years examined the reality of severe health conditions stemming from malnutrition considered to be third-world problems like marasmus and kwashiorkor.

While the early years of the committee’s work focused on federal assistance to combat hunger, the string of hearing reports and wide-ranging research eventually sent them by the mid-1970s in the direction of nutrition policy with the goal of examining the link between diet and chronic disease. At this point, questions of both deficiency and overconsumption were on the table.

By 1977, the committee had compiled its research, including the testimony of American scientist Ancel Keys and others who promoted the still prevalent but unsubstantiated link between fat (and cholesterol) and heart disease. (Some of you might recall Keys’ famous/infamous “Seven Countries Study,” highlighting conveniently cherry-picked nations in which both fat consumption and heart disease rates were high—and ignoring countries which contradicted the hypothesized link).

The committee finished out its work in 1977 with the resulting publication (largely influenced by Keys and his cohorts), “Dietary Goals for the United States,” the central recommendations of which were generally as follows:

  • Focus on energy balance by consumer only as much energy as will be expended
  • Lose weight by consuming fewer calories and expending more through movement
  • Decrease consumption of total fat and animal fat
  • Partially replace saturated fat consumption with polyunsaturated sources
  • Decrease eggs, butter and other significant dietary sources of cholesterol
  • Substitute low-fat/non-fat dairy products for full fat versions (for adults)
  • Decrease sodium intake
  • Decrease refined/processed sugars
  • Increase “complex carbohydrates” and “naturally occurring sugars”

(Sounds familiar, no?)

The guidelines’ publication was met with significant controversy. The American Medical Association for its part argued that nutritional guidance should come in the form of personalized recommendations from doctors to their individual patients. The meat, dairy and sugar industries naturally battled the reports’ suggestions to decrease consumption of their products. Additionally, individual scientists within and outside of the U.S. rightly critiqued the research behind the recommendations and demanded additional review and revision.

While recommendations against meat consumption were eventually softened in an addendum version later that year, the basic recommendations remained the same for reports to come, including for the first official (aforementioned) brochure issued through the collaboration of the USDA and HHS, “Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” This brochure would be the first of the ongoing series of federally issued dietary guidelines we’ve seen over the last few decades. (The newest version is being created now for 2015. More on that in a moment.)

What have these recommendations looked like through the years? While the longer narrative reports are too cumbersome to detail here, the very basic guidelines between 1980-2010 have been as follows.

1980 Guidelines (PDF)

1. Eat a Variety of Foods
2. Maintain Ideal Weight
3. Avoid Too Much Fat, Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
4. Eat Food with Adequate Starch and Fiber
5. Avoid Too Much Sugar
6. Avoid Too Much Sodium

If You Drink Alcohol, Do So in Moderation

1985 Guidelines (PDF)

Basically the same, except a terminology change to second recommendation:

2. Maintain desirable weight

1990 Guidelines (PDF)

Much the same with these changes:

2. Maintain healthy weight
3. Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol
4. Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grain projects
5. Use sugars only in moderation
6. Use salt and sodium in moderation

1995 Guidelines

The 1995 set of guidelines generally followed the previous concepts, revising the second of the seven recommendations and moving the suggestion about a low fat diet to the third rather than second placement. It also altered wording for the fifth and sixth guidelines.

Among other new resources, the 1995 guidelines introduced the “food pyramid” we know and love (kidding).

2. Balance the food you eat with physical activity—maintain or improve your weight
5. Choose a diet moderate in sugars
6. Choose a diet moderate in salt and sodium

2000 Guidelines (PDF)

Guidelines increased from 7 to 10 and were clustered into 3 thematic groups, reflecting more substantive changes than previous years.

“Aim for Fitness”

1. Aim for a healthy weight.
2. Be physically active each day.

“Build a Healthy Base”

3. Let the Pyramid guide your food choices
4. Choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains
5. Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily
6. Keep food safe to eat [related to preventing foodborne illness]

“Choose Sensibly”

7.  Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat.
8. Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars
9. Choose and prepare foods with less salt
10. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation

2005 Guidelines

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines offered a substantially more complex set of recommendations—41 suggestions total (23 for the general population, 18 for “special populations” such as pregnant women). You can read the full set of 41 recommendations here. The USDA also released the MyFoodPyramid Food Guidance System shortly after the official 2005 guidelines.

The nine topics covered by these guidelines were as follows.

  • Adequate Nutrients Within Calorie Needs
  • Weight Management
  • Physical Activity
  • Food Groups to Encourage
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Sodium and Potassium
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Food Safety

Nutritional messaging, while more detailed and made available in more consumer-friendly public-focused versions, remained roughly the same. Noteworthy modifications or additions include emphasizing fitness efforts that incorporate cardiovascular conditioning, flexibility exercises and strength-building exercise and the balancing of potassium-rich foods with moderation of sodium intake.

The guidelines emphasized obtaining less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat sources, less than 300 mg of daily cholesterol intake and as low as possible trans fat consumption. Total fat intake should favor polyunsaturated and monounsaturated sources and should fall between 20-35% of total caloric intake.

The 2005 guidelines also present the concept of “discretionary calorie allowance” for the “small amount of calories” that may be applied to “solid fat and added sugar” choices when other food selections have been appropriately nutrient dense.

2010 Guidelines (PDF)

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (the most recent iteration) took a pivotal turn as they were written not for “healthy” Americans but for an overweight/obese population. Talk about a sad commentary on the state of our nation that our national guidelines were now addressed for a presumed unhealthy population.…

Two “new” concepts that were stressed in this iteration of the guidelines included:

1. Maintaining “calorie balance” (ye olde outdated “calories in, calories out” model) throughout the full lifespan to manage weight, which had actually been an element of the 1977 report.

2. Emphasizing nutrient dense foods by scrutinizing how many of a food’s calories came from fat or added sugar versus its total caloric value (never mind that clean fats offer their own essential health benefits…).

Also within the guidelines report is the assertion that “strong evidence” suggests “that there is no optimal proportion of macronutrients that can facilitate weight loss or assist with maintaining weight loss.” Simultaneous to this declaration, the report lists 4 of the top 5 sources of calories for Americans (over two years of age) as the following: grain-based desserts, yeast breads, soda/energy/sports drinks and pizza.

Given the recognized prevalence of obesity, what should this list suggest about the optimal balance of macronutrients—specifically the recommended high carbohydrate proportion (2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of grains and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day)? As they say, “How’s that working for ya?”

The 2010 guidelines for the first time recommended a 1500 mg sodium limit for those over 50-years-old, those who are African-American or who have existing chronic conditions like hypertension or diabetes. This new point is in addition to the traditional 2300 mg limit suggested for the general population. The 2010 version also took out the 2005 language about “discretionary calories” and recommended limiting refined grains (PDF).

Why Do These Guidelines Matter?

When the initial focus of government efforts was expanding federal food assistance programming, a major interest was setting standards for these programs—what foods would be covered by food stamps and the WIC program or what standards would be used for subsidized school lunch programs.

Yet, their impact is broader than public funding or institutional benchmarks. Government issued guidelines establish a cultural norm, an anticipated standard. Whether they reflect the latest and most trustworthy scientific standards (they don’t), the majority of the public will view these guidelines as the most authoritative source for nutritional information. And this is where it gets tricky.

It’s clear industry forces (e.g. Big Ag) as well as institutional inertia (e.g. Can the rest of the country ever let go of the old fat fallacy, please?) have a seat at the table when it’s time to establish the latest round of nutrition recommendations, and I’ll go out on a limb and say this shouldn’t make anyone comfortable. The 2015 guidelines are in the works, and already the process is a loaded political subject. I’ll say it makes me feel that much better that my dietary choices are based on something a little more established than the result of political and financial wrangling.

How much the government should be involved in the actual creation of food guidelines is probably a topic for another post if not another blog altogether…. Nonetheless, if this has you fired up (or you’ve been fired up on this issue for a while), there’s a petition you might check out “demanding that quality science determine the 2015 U.S. dietary guidelines.” There’s an interesting thought at least….

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if any of this interests you, there’s a fantastic book my company published called Death by Food Pyramid. In it author Denise Minger exposes how shoddy science, sketchy politics and shady special interests have shaped American dietary recommendations—and the impact this has had on the health of Americans. She does this with much more wit, humor and knowledge about this topic than I’ve showcased here in this short blog post. I highly recommend it. Lucky you, you can claim a free digital copy of Death by Food Pyramid for a limited-time. Learn all the details here.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these government issued guidelines and their shifts in some areas (and inertia in many others) over time. Have a great end to your week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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26 thoughts on “A Brief History of U.S. Dietary Guidelines”

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  1. I started teaching Home Economics in 1975 with the “Basic 4” Food Groups which had replaced the “Basic 7” that I was taught during the 60’s. Food guidance was really important during WWII due to rationing and reduced food supply. I collect WWII era memorabilia and love the guidelines for collecting fat, which was used for bomb production. The guidelines always say for the homemaker to continue to provide enough fat for her family’s health before saving it for the government. Back then people weren’t afraid of bacon and sausage fat and considered it important for health. I stopped teaching Home Economics as the emphasis shifted to process foods and the Food Pyramid required 6-11 servings of breads and cereals a day. Real food (even some real sugar) is better than processed, chemicalized junk. I was heading towards Primal long before I knew about it.

  2. “Prior to 1980, how in the world did anyone know how to eat?”

    Let me tell you! I was in elementary school in the 1970s. We were taught “four, four, three, two; that’s the motto for me and you” or something like that.

    The numbers refer to how many servings from the various food groups we were supposed to have in 1 day.

    1. I thought I was the only one that remembered 4-4-3-2 that’s the way for me and you. The model was 4 meats:dairy, 4 carbs, 3 veggies and 2 fruits. I think. Still recall the poster with the meat, milk and cheese, potato, brocolli and a red apple.

      1. OMG, Greg thank you for your reply!!!

        Clearly the 4 meats (or fish/poultry) is primal. I think for total primal living, the 4, 4, 3, 2 should be 4 meats/fish/poultry, 4 veggies, 3 fruits, and 2 chocolates and/or wine.

        Am I wrong?

      2. I believe it was 4 servings of breads/cereals, 4 servings of fruits/vegetables, 3 servings of dairy, and 2 servings of meats/other protein.

      3. I remember 4-4-3-2. It was four breads and cereals, four dairy and eggs, three fruits and vegetables and two meats, wasn’t it? Anyway, I knew it was bogus as a child because eggs were in with dairy even though everyone knew eggs are nutritionally nothing like dairy.

      4. Interestingly the 4-4-3-2 almost perfectly shadows the old Weight Watchers Exchange system.

  3. Even BEFORE that select committee was assembled, George McGovern saw an ad on TV with a sickly, malnourished kid, and felt sorry for him–and then wondered how many like him resided in this country. Tugging at heartstrings is what started the whole ball rolling. McGovern was susceptible to TV advertising.

    That’s probably how we ended up with the fly-covered kid/Sally Struthers ads for so long.

    1. Permit me to set the record straight there. What McGovern saw was actually a CBS documentary called ‘Hunger in America’ broadcast in 1968.
      According to Denise Minger writing in ‘Death by Food Pyramid’:

      “From the backwaters of Alabama to the dusty Navajo reservations of the Southwest, the program pulled viewers into a world of struggle and pain, sending shockwaves throughout the country. Under the nation’s rippling flag of freedom lay a shadow few knew existed: deep poverty and malnutrition in a land that prided itself on abundance.
      Among those most deeply affected was Senator George McGovern, who’d been watching the documentary with his wife and daughters. As he recounted decades later, one scene in particular burrowed deep into his conscience and refused to leave. The filmmakers had zoomed in on a young
      boy standing against the wall of his cafeteria, eyes downcast and solemn. “When you get to school, what do you have to eat there?” one of the CBS reporters asked him.
      “Nothing,” the boy replied.
      “You don’t have anything to eat when you’re at school?”
      “No, sir.”
      With the boy’s gaze lost to the floor, the interviewers prodded further, asking how he felt about his situation—standing there day after day with an empty stomach, watching the other children buy their lunches and eat while he could not.
      “I feel ashamed.”
      It was a pivotal moment for McGovern. He turned to his family, seated beside him in the comfort of their upper middle-class home. “You know, it’s not that little boy who should be ashamed,” he said. “It’s George McGovern, a United States Senator, a member of the Committee on Agriculture.”
      The very next day, McGovern marched into the Senate with a mission. He would leverage his political clout for the welfare of the nation, launching a committee dedicated to abolishing America’s hidden hunger. He had no trouble gathering the support he needed. The documentary’s shocking—and, for the country’s pride, disgraceful—exposure of hunger had been enough to galvanize both the public and Congress into action.”

      In the outcry that followed, McGovern became chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs which was set up to tackle the problem. Indirectly this was what led to the Food Pyramid.
      While I think as we can all agree, McGovern’s heart was in the right place, the legacy of his efforts was not so good.

  4. Ah yes, the USDA Food Pyramid,I remember it well from school. Now we have MyPlate, which is even worse in my opinion. I’ve had many a heated discussion with my daughter’s various ‘health’ teachers when they get to the unit on nutrition. Seems no one cares for parents who actually understand the science of nutrition, and dare to contradict the hogwash they are selling to the kids. While the motives behind the original guidelines may have been noble (ending malnutrition in our vulnerable populations), the politics and special interest lobbies have rendered those motives irrelevant. Today it’s all about propping up subsidized crops and keeping Big Ag happy. No wonder most Americans are fat, sick, and unmotivated.

  5. Chuckle… Going over the dietary recommendations, I can’t but conclude that those making them are blind as a bat and are basically 2nd guessing themselves. What a shame!

  6. You know, if you just lop the base layer off of the food pyramid, you’re 80% of the way to healthy!

  7. Its good to see there is serious dissent (from the past gov. interventions) and willingness to “go out on a limb” as Mark has put it.

    We have to go out on those limbs on a regular basis, in my opinion, or else heaven only knows what we might be fed.

  8. I wonder how much Americans actually stick to dietary guidelines. I know that they are far from ideal, but even if they actually followed the guidelines, would they be just a little bit healthier?
    Other than indoctrinating us all that grains are healthy, fat is bad, and meat is dirty, I’m not sure what effect the dietary guidelines actually have on most Americans. It seems to me people just eat the way they want regardless of what they are recommended to do.

    1. Except for the institutionalized, like hospital patients, nursing home residents, mental patients, prisoners and such. How can someone become healthy or sane on such a diet. In the case of prisoners such a diet can only aggravate aggression.

      1. Don’t forget our children. Many eat 2 meals/day at school, along with snack and 1% milk breaks. And at least in MN where I live, day care meals are subsidized and must follow nutritional “guidelines” to receive their subsidies. From cradle to HS graduation, our kids are eating the government mandated “food”.

  9. There is a great documentary on Netfix, Fed Up. It details how the Ag lobby and the desire to feed the masses with the process of wealth transfer has made our school children fat and sick. One segment details how the sugar manufacturers and beverage producers prevented labeling for a recommended daily dose of sugar on commercially packaged products. Congress had established something like 50 grams as a max daily dose of sugar but they sold out. In one other segment the people who supply the federal school lunch program convinced Congress that Pizza qualifies as a vegetable. The sad part is the misery of the obese children followed as case studies. These kids are forced to endure a low fat, grain and sugar based, calorie restricted diet. Fed Up is a heartbreaker and details how the food pyramid is literally killing these kids.

  10. I got from a nutritionist back in 2010 a small poster of the food pyramid that I stick at the side of my fridge since then! We should never lose sight of our enemy!

  11. My poor little guy decided to just “fill in the blanks like they want” on his nutrition training at school even though he knew better himself even in elementary school.
    Then if you look at the food offered for school lunches it’s ALL nothing but processed / microwaved food. If you send your little one with a healthy lunch it’s a concern that someone might report your “abusive lunch”, ugh. Middle school this year is so much better!!!

    1. School food is pathetic. On top of that, my 6 year old’s teacher gives the class treats like candy corn when the kids perform remarkable feats like staying in line or sitting quietly (made all the more difficult by feeding them candy!). These used to be expected behaviors and were probably much easier for kids to do successfully because they weren’t jacked up all the time. Now they’re spiking and crashing, and the solution is to reward them with candy when they behave like a trained seal. Sad.

  12. When we consider that students who eat both school breakfast and lunch are having two out of their three main meals based on these guidelines, and having their eating habits shaped by them too, changing the guidelines becomes more urgent. And if you think the general, federally funded school lunch is bad, the breakfasts are pathetic.

  13. Yeesh. History is usually interesting but in this case a history of stupidity and overarching desires to control our lives just made me mad.

  14. It bothers me when people refer to living Primal as a “fad diet”, as if it is just another weight loss gimmick designed to make money for some snake oil salesman.

    I know, I need to learn to just laugh it off, but as a scientist I take science very seriously. Clearly the medical research is showing that living Primal is not a “fad diet” but rather, it is the act of aligning our food & beverage consumption with what our body’s biochemistry has evolved to utilize best.

    To say that Primal eating is a “fad diet” is similar to saying that walking upright on two legs is “fad locomotion”!

  15. We have the same problem here in Australia following the US dietary guidelines. Anyone who advocates paleo/primal is howled down by the so called ‘dietary experts’ who want to make you feel bad by eating real food instead of processed junk.
    There is an ad currently running for a well known brand of processed joghurt saying there is ‘one less TEASPOON’ of sugar per serve. Mind you there is a child sitting down to his big bowl of processed cereal with a small dollop of joghurt placed on the top of the cereal, although they don’t say what the ‘serving size’ actually is. As far as I know that particular brand is low fat sugary slop but it’s now ‘healthier, give me strength to not yell at the tv when I see that ad.
    Me, I’ll stick to paleo/primal thanks, my health hasn’t been so good for 30years, no medications for anything, and I go to the gym regularly 3 times a week, walk at least 2 days a week and I don’t overdo like I used to. I’m feeling good.
    One of the trainers at my gym did a review of my program and asked about my diet. I told her paleo/primal and that floored her. She knew what I was talking about and said she couldn’t fault it, but it gave her a surprise, old ladies don’t usually do paleo, they bake cakes and biscuits and make lots of jam when fruit is in season and I know plenty of ‘girls’ my age who do. I just smiled, as if I was going to change whether she liked it or not.
    I don’t know why we let these so called dietary experts dictate what we ate to us, we trusted them and followed their advice and history has shown that it was so wrong. Here’s hoping that somewhere down the track common sense will prevail and people power will come back demanding better food instead of the crap it has turned into. Thank God I can still buy fresh veggies and meat.

  16. Primal/Primitive/Paleo .. someone tried to call that ketogenic at a party the other day, apparently people are using Paleo to do what Atkins did, an excuse to eat high fat, high protein diets. I’m finding that during my paleo journey I’m getting tired of meat and eating less all the time. Essentially my quest started 16 years ago in finding the cleanest beef but yet the tastiest steak, well I’m done with steaks. Still, nothing beat highland beef dry aged for two weeks in the cooler, it shrinks the meat pulling the flavor into a smaller cut. Wow.. still makes my mouth water a bit.
    So, I switched to Bison, I’ve had it before, that got boring when I tried some EMU meat, and wow that takes lean to the N’th degree and it’s supposedly an alkaline meat. Lately I’ve been digging into the nutritionfacts.org website and can’t wait for our annual vegan fest, and to get my garden growing again, hopefully the garlic turned out, tough crop to grow.

    YES, many older folks eat all the baked crap, still many are on a limited SS budget, and I feel bad for them, but I watched one set of grandparents eat whatever they wanted and died, the other grandparents I noticed they were eating much smaller meals, gosh they ate so cheap too, still alive at about 90 years old.

  17. Dear Mark: would you like to provide me with the bibliographic reference of this statement you made in the article: “The American Medical Association for its part argued that nutritional guidance should come in the form of personalized recommendations from doctors to their individual patients. ”
    This reference will be beneficial in our community where we are fighting against the box.

    Thanks in advance