USDA Dietary Guidelines: A Brief History

The Beginning of Dietary Guidelines

Did you know the USDA published its first dietary recommendation in 1894? It was a Farmer’s Bulletin written in 1894 by W.O. Atwater, the first director of the Office of Experiment Stations in USDA. At the time, Specific minerals and vitamins had not been identified at that time.

However, what you may not have known is that the amount they recommend is not the amount you need for optimal health. And that’s understandable because everyone’s body, lifestyle, and other factors vary substantially. The recommendation is the “minimum levels required to prevent nutritional deficiencies such as scurvy and beriberi.” 

Since then, it has continued to update its recommendation based on current research. In 1916, food was grouped into 5 categories: meat and milk, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, and sugar and sugary foods. And in 1921, a guide was set based on these food groups. 

Great Depression Causes Major Changes

Once The Great Depression started in the early 1930s, changes were made to help people hit their minimum nutritional requirements to avoid. They expanded the food groups from 5 to 12, encouraging people to eat all the groups weekly to help reduce cost and rationing of food. 

The major change happened in 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt called a counsel to release the first, full set of Required Dietary Allowances (RDA). 

These RDA’s listed specific recommended intakes for calories and nine essential nutrients, protein, iron, calcium, vitamins A and D, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Much of this foundation is still in place today: Note, little guidance was provided about the amount of fat and sugar intake. 

The Introduction of Food Groups:

A deficiency in the published guideline was the lack of an amount of each food and the complicity of the guidelines. In 1956, a new, simplified guideline was published that focused on the “Big Four” food groups, milk, dairy, vegetables and fruits, and grain products. This guide was focused on getting enough nutrients. But again, enough to avoid ailment, not to optimize health. 

In 1979, USDA began addressing the growing risk of chronic diseases. The focus was now on fats, sugars, and sodium. The “Big Four” added a 5th food group: “fats, sweets, and alcoholic beverages.”

With guidelines on nutrients, and guidelines on the Food Groups, the need for a single, consistent guideline was needed by the public.

The First, Formal Dietary Guidelines

The guideline was the first edition of Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans (USDA and DHHS, 1980). The guidelines called for a variety of foods to provide essential nutrients while maintaining recommended body weight and moderating dietary constituents - fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium - that might be risk factors in certain chronic diseases. However, these guidelines were directional, not quantitative. 

Dietary recommendations continued to evolve. The focus of the evolution was on the major factors effecting chronic illness: sugar, fats, and alcoholic beverages. Minimal changes of vegetables were discussed.

Introducing: The Food Pyramid

Although all these guidelines were publicly available, they were not commonly known. In 1992, the Food Pyramid was introduced. This created an easy, visual representation of the Food Groups and the suggested amount of each one.

Yes, the infamous Food Pyramid many of us grew up with was published in 1992. And it largely remained the same for many years to come. This is because the Food Pyramid was made much more publicly available as the internet penetrated the economy and everyday life.

Thankfully, the guidelines have improved over time, especially with the emphasis of more vegetables and fruit. And just as important, the recommendation to minimize sugar intake.

But what’s always been lacking is some guidelines on the amount of each nutrient needed to optimize your health and to live your best and healthiest life. 

How can specific foods and their nutrients help address an issue you have?
How can you use food, and vegetables, to optimize your health?
Are there foods that help you improve your overall performance?

The answer to all these is yes. And while everyone is different in their needs, we want to talk more about how going above and beyond the USDA RDA can improve your overall health and highlight certain foods that have been shown to help.



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