“The general impression of hygienists is that our diet is one-sided and that we eat too much fat, starch, and sugar.” —W. U. Atwater
The above quote is not a new recommendation but was made by a United States Department of Agriculture employee in 1894. The USDA first began doing research on the relationship between agriculture and human nutrition in the 189O’s. \V.O. Atwater was the ﬁrst director of the Ofﬁce of Experiment Stations, and the work he did a century ago has a strong influence on how we think of nutrition today. Besides studying the typical American diet, Atwater published tables listing the number of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and “mineral matters” of different foods.
Atwater also created the ﬁrst dietary standards, Which suggested the amount of food required for different types of people. For laborers, he recommended a diet of 3,500 calories, with 15 percent of those calories from protein, 38 percent from fat, and 52 per- cent from carbohydrates. This advice is amazingly similar to the current recommendations.
The ﬁrst food groups. The idea of food groups was introduced in How to Select Foods, published by the USDA in 1917. This pamphlet advised choosing foods from each of ﬁve groups: fruits and vegetables, meats, cereals and other starchy foods, sweets, and fatty foods.
Atwater’s advice to limit the intake of fat and sugar was ignored by this publication. Malnutrition was a prime concern for the country at the time, so this guide emphasized eating a variety of foods in order to prevent vitamin and miner- a.l deﬁciencies. Since Atwater‘s suggestions might have limited people‘s intake of meat and dairy products, Which a.re important sources of vitamins and minerals, they were omitted. Besides, the USDA was in the business of encouraging, not curtailing, purchases of American agricultural goods
The food-group approach was popular With the public. The number of groups was modiﬁed, often as dietary advice changed over the years. Noting that its recommendations meant greater sales for agricultural products, the USDA expanded its list to 12 food groups in the l930‘s. Milk, for example, became a separate category. During World War ll, people were encouraged to eat daily from eight groups. Eggs were one group, and “butter and other spreads” was another. Later guidelines promoted the Basic Seven food groups, and then the Basic Four.
The controversial pyramid. In the mid-1970’s the purpose of food guides changed. Obesity and diet-related illnesses had overtaken malnutrition as public health concerns.
The Food Guide Pyramid (shown on the facing page) was created to illustrate not just food categories but correct proportions for a healthy diet. Breads and cereals form the large base, followed by vegetables and fruits.
Where the pyramid takes its strongest stand is at the top, advocating fewer servings of sweets, fats, dairy products, and meat products. While the decreased emphasis on foods near the top of the pyramid brought protests from the makers of these foods, the pyramid was eventually released to the public as a way to clarify What constitutes a Well— balanced diet. It‘s interesting to note how close the Food Guide Pyramid comes to W.O. Atwater’s original dietary suggestions.