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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food pyramid, called MyPyramid to distinguish it from earlier versions, contains recommendations on diet and exercise based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.


MyPyramid is intended to help Americans become more aware of what they eat and what their nutrient requirements are. It is designed to help people learn how to eat a healthy diet, live an active lifestyle, and maintain or gradually move in the direction of a healthy weight that will reduce the risk of weight-related diseases. Unlike earlier diet and nutrition guidance, MyPyramid can personalize dietary recommendations based on the individual’s height, weight, age, gender, activity level and weight goals.


MyPyramid, released in 2005, is the most recent in a series of publications designed to provide Americans with broad dietary recommendations that will promote health. More than one hundred years ago in 1894, the USDA published its first set of national nutrition guidelines. The first food guide followed this in 1916. In this first food guide, the author, a nutritionist, introduced the idea of food groups. The five food groups defined in the food guide were milk and meat, cereals, fruits and vegetables, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods. The guide made recommendations about eating food from each food group to remain healthy.

In 1941, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences published the first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). The RDAs were based on the amount of each vitamin or mineral that was needed to prevent symptoms of the corresponding nutrient-deficiency disease. Two years later, the United States was in World War II. During this time certain foods (e.g. butter, sugar) were rationed and others were scarce. In order to help people eat a healthy diet during rationing, the USDA published new nutritional guidelines. Not long after World War II ended, the guidelines were again modified. The post-World War II guidelines introduced the basic four food groups: milk, meats, fruits and vegetables, and grains. These four food groups served as the foundation for nutrition education until the 1970s. During the 1970s, the USDA added a fifth dietary category, foods that should be used in moderation. This new restricted foods category included fats, sweets, and alcoholic beverages.

The first pyramid graphic designed to explain the concepts behind the basic food groups appeared in 1988. It was intended show graphically that people

should eat a variety of foods in differing amounts of food from all of the four groups and consume only small amounts from the fifth group of restricted foods. The need for physical activity was not illustrated anywhere in this pyramid, nor was it shown in the 1992 version called the Food Guide Pyramid.

The 2005 MyPyramid was a major revision of the Food Guide Pyramid. It was designed to illustrate recommendations found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 released by the USDA in January 2005. MyPyramid introduced both new graphics and the previously ignored concept that physical activity had to be taken into account when planning a healthy diet. On one side of the pyramid, each food group is represented by a vertical band of color ascending to the peak of the pyramid. The bands are of varying width, illustrating the relative proportions of each food group that should be consumed daily. On the other side of the pyramid, a figure climbs stairs, illustrating the intercon-nectedness between diet and exercise.

These were not the only changes incorporated into MyPyramid. There were other new features.

  • Fruits and vegetables are listed as separate categories.
  • Emphasis is placed on eating whole grains rather than highly processed refined grains.
  • Quantities of food are defined in familiar measures such as cups or ounces, rather than as serving sizes.
  • Physical activity is incorporated into a healthy eating plan.
  • One-size-fits-all dietary guidance was abandoned. A Web-based feature allows individuals to personalize dietary recommendations by entering their height, weight, age, gender, and level of daily physical activity. The program then calculates how many calories should be consumed daily and makes recommendations on how these should be distributed among the different food groups.
  • A new category called discretionary calories was introduced. These are calories that can be consumed after other food group requirements have been met.
  • A Web-based tracker allows individuals to assess their food intake and physical activity level and track their energy balance (calories taken in compared to calories burned) for an entire year.
  • Educational information is available on three levels: child, adult, and healthcare professional.

Using personalized MyPyramid recommendations

To make use of the information in MyPyramid, individuals must first know whether they are considered thin, average, overweight, or obese. The National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization classify weight based on body mass index (BMI). For instructions on how to calculate BMI, and a


Amaranth—A grain with tiny seeds native to Central and South America.

B-complex vitamins—A group of water-soluble vitamins that often work together in the body. These include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7 or vitamin H), folate/folic acid (B9), and coba-lamin (B12).

Body Mass Index (BMI)—A calculation that uses weight and height measurements to determine an individual’s ‘‘fatness.’’

Bran—The outer layer of cereal kernel that contains fiber and nutrients. It is removed during the refining process.

Germ—In grains, the center part of the grain kernel that contains vitamins and minerals not found in the rest of the kernel. It is removed from refined (white) flour.

Quinoa—High-protein grain native to South America (pronounced keen-wah).

Triticale—Man-made hybrid plant that combines wheat and rye and that produces a higher protein flour.

Type 2 diabetes—Sometime called adult-onset diabetes, this disease prevents the body from properly using glucose (sugar).

discussion of its limitations, see the body mass index entry.

For adults of both genders over age 20, weight is classified as follows:

  • BMI below 18.5: Underweight
  • BMI 18.5-24.9: Normal weight
  • BMI 25.0-29.9: Overweight
  • BMI 30 and above: Obese

The weight of children ages 2-20 is also based on BMI, but the classification is different. Instead of classifying weight as a BMI range, a child’s BMI is compared to that of other children of the same age and sex. Children are then assigned a percentile based on their BMI. The weight categories for children are:

  • Below the 5th percentile: Underweight
  • 5th percentile to less than the 85th percentile: Healthy weight
  • 85th percentile to less than the 95th percentile: At risk of overweight
  • 95th percentile and above: Overweight

Many chronic diseases are more likely to develop when an individual’s BMI is outside the normal weight/health weight range. Individuals whose BMI is too high or too low can personalize the MyPyramid dietary recommendations so that if they follow them, their BMI will gradually move toward the normal/healthy weight range.

MyPyramid recommendations

MyPyramid makes recommendations in seven categories: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, meat and beans, oils, discretionary calories, and physical activity. MyPyramid assumes that people will eat from all food categories. The personalized recommendations about quantities to eat for each group do not take into consideration special diets for people with diabetes or other diseases.

GRAINS. Wheat, rice, oats, barley, and cornmeal are common grains in the American diet. Less familiar grains include buckwheat (also called kasha), amaranth, quinoa, sorghum, millet, rye, and triticale. Pasta, bread, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, grits, crackers, tortillas and other foods made from grains are part of this group.

Grains are divided into two categories, whole grains and refined grains. MyPyramid recommends that at least half of the grains an individual eats daily are whole grains. In whole grain, the whole kernel including bran and germ of the grain seed, is used or ground into flour. Examples of whole-grain products include whole-wheat flour, cracked wheat (bulgur), brown rice, wild rice, whole cornmeal, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat cereal such as muesli, and popcorn.

Refined grains have the bran, or seed coating, and the germ, or center of the kernel, removed during processing. This produces softer flour and removes oils from the grain. This slows the spoilage process and increases the shelf life of refined grain products. However, refining also removed dietary fiber, iron, and B-complex vitamins. Products made with refined grain often have B vitamins and iron added to replace some of what was lost by removing the germ and bran. These products are labeled ’’enriched.‘‘ Examples of refined grain products include white flour, degermed cornmeal, white rice, couscous, crackers, flour tortillas, grits, pasta, white bread, and corn flake cereal. Some products are made with a mixture of whole grain and refined grain flours too improve texture and taste but retain some nutrients.

VEGETABLES. Any vegetable or any 100% vegetable juice is part of the vegetable group. This group is subdivided into different types of vegetable. MyPyra-mid recommends that people eat vegetables from all five subgroups over the course of a week. The subgroups are:

  • dark green vegetables-spinach, kale, watercress, turnip greens, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, and similar vegetables.
  • orange vegetables-carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, pumpkin, acorn squash, etc.
  • dry beans and peas-black beans, navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, tofu (bean curd), etc.
  • starchy vegetables-potatoes, corn, fresh lima beans, green peas.
  • other vegetables-artichokes, cauliflower, mushrooms, bean sprouts, onions, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, celery, iceberg lettuce, and vegetables not other categories.

FRUITS. Fruits can be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried. One hundred percent fruit juice also counts as fruit. Virtually all fruit is included in this group including citrus fruits, berries, melons, and common fruits such as apples, bananas, and pears, Raisins (dried grapes) and other dried fruit also are part of the group.

MILK. Non-fat, low-fat, and whole milk all have about the same amount of calcium, the most important mineral in milk. Non-fat and low fat milk are the preferred choices in this group. Other foods in the milk group include yogurt, cheese, and desserts made with milk such as ice cream and pudding. When foods like ice cream or full-fat cheese or sweetened yogurt are chosen, the extra calories from fat and sugar should be subtracted from the daily discretionary calories. People who are lactose intolerant can choose lactose-reduced and lactose-free products. Cream cheese and butter contain only small amounts of calcium and are not part of this group.

MEAT AND BEANS. This group provides most of the protein in diet. Vegetarians and vegans can choose plant-based sources of protein. However, people who do not eat meat need to make sure they are getting adequate amounts of iron. See the entry on iron for more information. The meat group contains several subgroups. People should try to eat less red meat and more fish, poultry, and dried beans. Meat should be trimmed of all visible fat and baked, broiled, or grilled. If fat is added in cooking, it should be counted as oil or discretionary calories. This group includes:

  • meat-beef, pork, lamb, game meats such as venison and rabbit, organ meats such as liver and kidney, and lean cold cuts.
  • poultry-chicken and ground chicken, turkey and ground turkey, duck, goose, and pheasant.
  • eggs-all types. Egg yolks are high in cholesterol, but egg whites are not.
  • Dry beans and peas. This is the same as the list under vegetables. Dried beans and peas can be counted either in the vegetable group or the meat group.
  • fish and shelfish-catfish, salmon, halibut, tuna, and all other finned fish, shellfish such as clams, shrimp, crabs and lobster, canned fish such as sardines and anchovies.
  • seeds and nuts- almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and all other nuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds.

OILS. Oils are liquid at room temperature. Fats are solid at room temperature. Oils are preferred because they contain less saturated fat and trans fat. Diets high in saturated fat and trans fat are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Oils come from plant sources and include olive oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and oil blends. Fats come mainly from animal sources and include butter, lard (pork fat), tallow (beef fat), and chicken fat. Stick margarine and shortening are made of vegetable oils that are treated to make them solid. This process, called hydrogenation, increases the amount of saturated fat and trans fat they contain, making them less desirable sources of fat. Also palm oil and coconut oil, although liquid at room temperature, are not recommended because they are unusually high in saturated fat and trans fat. Avocados, nuts, olives, and some fish, such as salmon, are high in oils. Processed foods such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, and oil-packed tuna are also high in oil. See the entry on fat replacers for more information about fats and oils in processed foods.

DISCRETIONARY CALORIES. Discretionary calories are extra calories that remain after all the food group requirements have been met. The amount varies depending on how active a person is and their age and gender. MyPyramid calculates discretionary calories based on the personalized information each individual enters in the Web-based MyPyramid Plan. These calories can be used to increase the amount of food eaten in any group or for things like sugary treats, sauces, or alcoholic beverages that are not included in any of the food groups. Be aware, however, that the number of discretionary calories is usually small, especially for people who are not very active.

PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. MyPyramid recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day in addition to a person’s normal daily routine. Moderate and vigorous activity will increase the heart rate. Movement, such as casual walking while shopping, that does increase heart rate does not count toward the 30 minutes of activity.

Moderate activity includes:

  • brisk walking
  • hiking
  • year work and gardening
  • dancing
  • golfing while not using a golf cart
  • easy bicycling
  • light weight training Vigorous activity includes:
  • running or jogging
  • brisk or hard bicycling
  • lap swimming
  • aerobic exercising
  • power walking
  • many competitive sports (tennis, basketball, etc.)
  • heavy yard work such as chopping wood
  • heavy weight training


MyPyramid is designed for healthy people. It does not take into account special diets for people who have diabetes, hypertension, gluten intolerance, or other allergies, or those who have diseases such as cancer or AIDS that alter the nutrient requirements of the body. People with special conditions should follow the advice of their healthcare provider.

Parental concerns

MyPyramid is designed to apply only to children over age two. Because they are growing so rapidly, children younger than that have special dietary needs, including increased fat intake. Parents of children age two and younger should follow the dietary advice of their pediatrician.


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American Dietetic Association. 120 South Riverside Plaza, Suite 2000, Chicago, Illinois 60606-6995. Telephone: (800) 877-1600. Website: <>

American Council for Fitness and Nutrition. P.O. Box 33396, Washington, DC 20033-3396. Telephone: (800) 953-1700 Website:<>

United States Department of Agriculture. 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Room 1180, Washington, DC 20250. Website: <>


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United States Department of Agriculture. ‘‘My Pyramid: Steps to a Healthier You.’’ 2005. <>

United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture. ‘‘Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.’’ January 12, 2005. <>

United States Department of Agriculture. ‘‘My Pyramid for Kids.’’ 2005. <>

Tish Davidson, A.M.