Why Can’t the USDA Get the Food Guide Right? A Lesson in Information Design

I’m kinda bugged by this little problem. In over 70 years, with all the resources and funding that the federal government has access to, they can’t seem to visualize a comprehensible guide to good nutrition. In seven decades, five ideas have been created, funded, and distributed across America and into the impressionable minds of our schoolkids. But none of the food guides have been all that good. In fact, the most recent one, MyPlate, is borderline silly. Shouldn’t they be getting better in time, not worse?

I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s learning that there were four food groups: fruits and vegetables, milk, meat, and grains. In fact, this is what all Americans between 1956 and 1992 grew up knowing. The “Basic Four” food groups were developed as a way to simplify what the USDA had come up with earlier, and thank goodness.

Basic 7 Food GuideIn 1943, the USDA had come up with its first nutrition guide, where it labeled the “Basic 7” food groups:

1. Green and yellow vegetables;
2. Oranges, tomatoes, or grapefruit;
3. Potatoes and all other fruits and vegetables;
4. Milk and milk products
5. Meat, poultry, fish, or eggs (or dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter)
6. Bread, flour, and cereals
7. Butter and fortified margarine

The somewhat odd and complex grouping of foodstuffs in the Basic 7 diagram (and the pie-chart-like design that communicated equal servings for each group) was trumped by the well-received Basic Four just 13 years later. The four food groups were, after all, easier to learn, understand, and remember. We still weren’t taught serving sizes with the Basic Four, but for thirty-six years afterwards, Americans learned, simply, that we should eat our four food groups. No diagram of the Basic Four seems to have emerged as the nation’s  standard during that time period, but those of you who grew up in that era can probably remember what some of the basic diagrams looked like: a box, evenly divided into four squares, visually suggesting an equal consumption of each food group. They were simple, easy to remember, and they were widely successful. But they still said nothing about how much you should eat of each and they didn’t include other things we eat, like sugar.

USDA Food PyramidSo,when the 1990s arrived,  nutritionists had had enough of it. Fruits and vegetables weren’t the same thing–they needed to be split up. And what about sugars and fats and oils? Can’t we eat any of those? Soon, the USDA approved a much more sophisticated food guide: the Food Pyramid. Americans shifted their understanding of a healthy diet back to six food groups and began methodically memorizing the pyramid. All  that was lost in the Basic Four seemed to have emerged: serving sizes and visual comparisons of the food groups. Clear distinctions between each of the groups. This was the perfect food guide, wasn’t it?

But thirteen years later, the USDA got fed up with a recurring complaint: pyramids suggest a hierarchy. Why was sugar and fat on top? And, holy moly! Look at how many grains that would actually be if did the math to equate that portion of the pyramid!

MyPyramidRecognizing the visual error, in 2005 the USDA released MyPyramid, opting to simplify once again and remove any hierarchical relationships. The MyPyramid diagram, quickly surging into elementary schools and cafeterias nationwide, had solved their problem. Sugars and oils were wedged into the middle of an otherwise busy mix of healthy foods, hiding it, for most intents and purposes, from view. Each other food group was given a slice of the pyramid vertically with slightly wider horizontal bases to suggest larger and smaller serving sizes. Plus, a cool little dude climbing the stairs was added to suggest exercise needed to be added to a healthy diet. And the clouds? Well, they were just cute.

But this version was loaded with visual error as well. Nobody, it seemed, could actually tell how many grains or how many meats to eat. Was the amount of milk more or less than vegetables? Looking at MyPyramid, it was almost impossible to tell. The data that was gained in the previous version was lost in this one to a simpler pyramid design but busier, and unnecessary, foodstuff icons–which looks more like a landfill than anything worth consuming.

MyPlateReceiving a great deal of criticism for the visual confusion and busy diagram, in a short six years later in 2011, the USDA opted to produce yet another food guide. Spending over $2,000,000 (that’s right, TWO MILLION) to create the ultimate nutrition guide, the US Government proudly announced the new MyPlate. MyPlate was heralded for its visual simplicity. It used different colors and sizes to show food groups and portion sizes, it simplified the foods into five groups (getting rid of, once again, sugars and oils), and it used a plate to show what food should actually look like when we eat. The plate was also praised for removing meats and sticking to a plant-based diet (suggesting that you don’t need meat to get your protein and be healthy).

But this newest version is, still, visually incorrect. Besides missing out on healthy oils and sugars as some have complained, the portion sizes are still incomprehensible. Circles are used to suggest parts of a whole, like in a pie chart, but for this to work, each portion requires a unified central point. Diving the food groups into wedged portions like this is almost impossible for our minds to calculate. Worse, dairy doesn’t fit within the whole, making pie-chart calculation impossible; in fact, dairy seems to just be added onto the plate like some sort of undesirable wart–the bastard food group that may or may not be optional. And how does that little blue circle compare in quantity to the wedge of protein? Is it slightly less?

Admittedly, the MyPlate chart is attractive and it’s easy for me to see why the USDA would move to it over the previously obnoxious MyPyramid. But the simplicity of the chart makes it less than useful and the visual faux pas of the dairy and misaligned center make it less than helpful. Perhaps the next time the feds dump millions into a chart, they can look to a more comprehensible guide that doesn’t underestimate American’s ability to understand information. Hopefully we can move closer to something like what they use in Australia, the Guide to Healthy Eating, which has far more instructive value and is, actually, visually correct.

Australian Guide to Healthy Eating