Choosing Food Wisely

Don’t let the many, many facts and stats turn you off. The information you find here really is useful for making good food choices. Take a deep breath, keep your highlighter handy, and jump right in.

Food pyramids are comprised of building blocks for grown-ups. Instead of letters in the alphabet, these blocks represent food groups that you can put together to create a picture of a healthful diet.

The essential message of all good guides to healthful food choices is that no one food is either good or bad — how much and how often you eat a food is what counts. With that in mind, a food pyramid delivers three important messages:

  • Variety: The fact that the pyramid contains several blocks tells you that no single food gives you all the nutrients you need.
  • Moderation: Having blocks smaller than others tells you that although every food is valuable, some — such as fats and sweets — are best consumed in small amounts.
  • Balance: You can’t build a pyramid with a set of identical blocks. Blocks of different sizes show that a healthful diet is balanced: the right amount from each food group.

Clearly, the virtue of a food pyramid is that using it enables you to eat practically everything you like — as long as you follow the recommendations on how much and how frequently (or infrequently) to eat it.

The first food pyramid was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1992 in response to criticism that the previous government guide to food choices — the Four Food Group Plan (vegetables and fruits, breads and cereals, milk and milk products, meat and meat alternatives) — was too heavily weighted toward high-fat, high-cholesterol foods from animals. Figure 1 depicts the original USDA Food Guide Pyramid.

U.S. Department of Agriculture/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

As you can see, this pyramid is based on daily food choices, showing you which foods are in what groups. Unlike the Four Food Group Plan, the pyramid separates fruits and vegetables into two distinct groups and lists the number of servings from each food group that you should have each day. (The number of servings is provided in ranges. The lower end is for people who consume about 1,600 calories a day, and the upper end is for people whose daily dietary intake nears 3,000 calories.)

How much is a serving? Not to worry. That’s spelled out in Table 1.

Food Group Serving Size
Bread 1 slice bread
Cereal 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal
½ cup cooked cereal
Rice, pasta, crackers ½ cup cooked rice or pasta
5–6 small crackers
Vegetables 1 cup raw leafy vegetables
½ cup chopped raw vegetables
½ cup cooked chopped vegetables
3⁄4 cup vegetable juice
Fruits 1 medium piece of fresh fruit (apple, banana, orange, peach)
½ cup cooked or canned chopped fruit
3⁄4 cup fruit juice
Milk products 1 cup milk
1 cup yogurt
1½ ounces natural cheese
2 ounces processed cheese
Meat 2–3 ounces cooked lean meat
Fish 2–3 ounces cooked fish
Poultry 2–3 ounces cooked lean poultry
Dry beans ½ cup cooked dry beans
Eggs 1 egg (1 ounce)
Nuts, seeds 2 tablespoons peanut butter
1⁄3 cup nuts or seeds
Fats, oils, sweets No specific amount; very little

The Food Guide Pyramid (Washington, D.C.: International Food Information Council Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Marketing Institute, 1995)

One useful aspect of the original USDA Food Guide Pyramid is its recommendation of different numbers of daily servings for people consuming different amounts of calories each day. For example, consider how the recommended number of servings from the bread group varies at different levels of calorie consumption.

Table 2 lists the original USDA serving recommendations for three levels of calorie consumption:

  • 1,600 calories per day (sufficient for women who don’t exercise and for many older adults)
  • 2,200 calories per day (meets the needs of most children, active women, and many sedentary men)
  • 2,800 calories per day (provides the energy required by most teenage boys, many active men, and some very active women)
Food 1,600 Calories/Day 2,200 Calories/Day 2,800 Calories/Day
Bread group 6 servings 9 servings 11 servings
Fruit group 2 servings 3 servings 4 servings
Vegetable group 3 servings 4 servings 5 servings
Milk group* 2–3 servings 2–3 servings 2–3 servings
Meat group 5 ounces 6 ounces 7 ounces

* Requirements higher for women who are pregnant or nursing The Food Guide Pyramid (Washington, D.C.: International Food Information Council Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Marketing Institute, 1995)

Okay, now stare at the original Food Guide Pyramid and the servings charts until they’re burned into your brain. Then move on . . . to the spanking new version of the Food Guide Pyramid on a new interactive Web site,

By the time USDA/HHS got around to revising the Dietary Guidelines for 2005, it was pretty clear that the original food pyramid hadn’t done its proposed job of teaching most Americans how to choose foods that provide sufficient nutrients without piling on the pounds. What to do? What else? In a word, MyPyramid (see Figure 2).

Courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Like the original Food Guide Pyramid, this new version is made up of sections representing the foods in your daily diet — from left to right, grains, vegetables, fruit, oils, milk, and meat/beans. Like the building blocks on the original Food Guide Pyramid, the six bands on this one say “pick lots of different kinds of foods to build a better diet.”

The different sizes of the sections suggest that you should consume more of some foods than others. The steps going up the side of the pyramid say, “Physical activity matters, so get moving!” And the MyPyramid slogan, “Steps to a Healthier You,” tells you that you don’t have to leap tall buildings in a single bound like Superman (or woman) to improve your nutrition.

Even small steps can make a big difference. But the big deal about MyPyramid is that you can personalize the diagram to meet your own special needs. For more information, visit