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Moving Away from MyPyramid

Food Groups and Serving Sizes

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The MyPyramid (L), a new symbol and interactive food guidance system that replaces the old Food Guide Pyramid April 19, 2005, in Washington. The MyPyramid symbol is meant to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices and to be active every day.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
We have two tools at our disposal for figuring out what kinds of food to eat and how much of a particular food to eat: the food guidance system, which until 2005 was symbolized by the Food Pyramid, and then by MyPyramid (pictured), which replaced it until 2011, and nutrition facts labels. These were intended as valuable tools in our quest to eat more healthfully, offering us the means to measure our actual intake of various foods against what we should be eating. In reality, we took little notice.

The first of these, the USDA Food Pyramid, known as MyPyramid, was unveiled in April 2005, reflecting the government's revised dietary guidelines published earlier that year.

MyPyramid was a visual illustration of suggested healthy eating habits and physical activity. Like its predecessor, the Food Guide Pyramid, MyPyramid combined the government’s dietary guidelines and recommended allowances into six food groups. But instead of illustrating the number of servings based on a one-size-fits-all 2,000 calorie intake, the MyPyramid symbol itself showed six vertical color bands, each representing varying proportions of the pyramid. These colors represented the food groups as follows.

  • Orange for grains
  • Green for vegetables
  • Red for fruits
  • Yellow for oils
  • Blue for milk
  • Purple for meat and beans

The problem was, merely glancing at the symbol slapped on a food package gave us little information to work with. After all, how many of us would remember what purple represented, or orange? We were required to go online to figure it all out.

For specific servings of a given food group, we were encouraged to create our own, personal pyramid online, hence the name "MyPyramid." By keying in certain data, we could find out how much we should eat from each food group based on our age, sex and level of activity. Surprisingly, we were not asked about our height or weight.

The 2005 dietary guidelines on which MyPyramid was based, promoted fruits and vegetables and whole grains. At the 2,000 calorie level, here's what the guidelines suggested.

  • Fruit Group should provide 4 daily servings, or 2 cups.
  • Vegetable Group should provide 5 servings, or 2.5 cups.
  • Grain Group should provide 6 ounce-equivalents (1 ounce-equivalent means 1 serving), half of which should be whole grains.
  • Meat and Beans Group should provide 5.5 ounce-equivalents or servings.
  • Milk Group should provide 3 cups/servings.
  • Oils should provide 24g or 6 teaspoons.
  • Discretionary Calories: The remaining amount of calories in each calorie level after nutrient-dense foods have been chosen. Up to 267 calories could be consumed in solid fats or added sugars if the other requirements were been met.

MyPyramid did not spell this out because, rightly, 2,000 calories is not appropriate for everyone. Instead, the color bands represented a visual clue about what proportion of our diet these foods were to form. But this is waht confounded us.

How helpful was MyPyramid? Not very. In the end, we were confused by the symbol, and unless we were particularly motivated, few of us bothered to go online and customize our pyramid. Plus, many of those who perhaps were in need of this the most, had limited or no access to the internet in any case. This meant that we would come to depend on the information contained in food labels to guide us, if we relied on anything at all. And the information in those could be confusing and intentionally or not, misleading.

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