• Author:
    Betty Kovacs Harbolic, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

What is the difference between MyPlate and the Food Pyramid?

The importance of a balanced diet dates back to research done in the 1800s. The original research started with data on protein, carbohydrates, ash, and "fuel" value for common foods. In 1902, the man responsible for this research, W.O. Atwater, stated that "the evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear -- perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease." To this day, the guidelines emphasize the dangers of excess.

The first official food guide in USDA publications was published in 1916. In this guide, foods were categorized into five food groups: milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruits; fats and fat foods; and sugar and sugary foods. Throughout the years, several other versions of the guidelines would emerge as research pointed out the benefits and risks of specific kinds of foods and beverages.

In 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid was released as the image for a healthful diet. It emphasized foods from the five major food groups: grain group, vegetable group, fruit group, meat group, and milk group. Fats, oils, and sweets were represented at the very top of the pyramid. The message was that each group provided some, but not all nutrients, and no one food group is more important than the other.

Picture of the Food Pyramid
Picture of the Food Pyramid

The Food Pyramid also included a range of servings for each of the food groups. The minimum range was listed for "almost everyone," and the maximum was based on your calorie needs. The biggest problem with the Pyramid turned out to be the servings listed under each food group. Many people are unaware of the difference between a serving and a portion. A serving is a guideline or standard unit of measurement. We need this measurement to help estimate how much someone consumes. The portion is the actual number of servings that you consume. For example, if you eat a sandwich with two pieces of bread you would have two servings from the grain group. Each piece of bread is one serving, so two pieces would be two servings. That means that your portion was two servings of grains. People would mistakenly think that whatever amount they had at the meal was equal to one serving. That could mean that you were allowed a minimum of six sandwiches if bread was your only source of grains! Of course, this is not the case and it would be extremely difficult to maintain your weight if you did that with each of the food groups.

Another criticism of the Pyramid was the way that the foods were listed. Some people saw the large grain group on the bottom and thought that it was more important than fruits or vegetables. Others saw the top as the most important and that would mean that fats, oils, and sweets were the most important part of their diet. Finally, the Pyramid doesn't show that whole grains are ideal, you want lowfat versions of meats and dairy, fresh fruits and veggies are ideal, that you need water, or that physical activity is needed.

MyPyramid was the icon that replaced the Food Guide Pyramid. With this modification of the system, the goal was a more personalized approach to healthy eating and physical activity. The image now had colors representing each of the food groups that were spread across the Pyramid, instead of stacked from top to bottom. A person climbing up the stairs on the side was added to emphasize physical activity. The web site was added to give details on serving sizes and personalize how many are needed from each food group. The hope was that people would use the online tool and get the needed education for the Pyramid to make sense. Unfortunately, many people found this even more complicated than the original Food Guide Pyramid.

Picture of MyPyramid
Picture of MyPyramid

In the hopes of simplifying the goal of a well-balanced diet, MyPlate was developed. The plate is built off of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and is divided into four sections: fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein. On the side, is an image for dairy. Along with the plate comes "10 tips to a great plate," which are based on the Dietary Guidelines and include the following advice:

  1. Balance calories.
  2. Enjoy your food but eat less.
  3. Avoid oversized portions.
  4. Foods to eat more often
  5. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  6. Switch to fat-free or lowfat (1%) milk.
  7. Make half your grains whole grains.
  8. Foods to eat less often
  9. Compare sodium in foods.
  10. Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Details on each of these and other tips can be found at this government site.

We eat on a plate and not a pyramid so the image of a plate is clearly easier to understand when deciding what a balanced meal should look like. Many believe that MyPlate is going to have a huge impact in changing the American diet. First Lady Michelle Obama announced that MyPlate "is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of foods that we're eating, and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country."

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/29/2015

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