What the New Food Pyramid Means for Vegetarians

Post by Christine Frazier.

This month the USDA released the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and it’s out with the rigid 1992 food pyramid and in with a snazzy new vegetarian-friendly version.  Yep, vegetarian-friendly, and ready to hit America with what’s been called a Michael Pollan-approach to eating better.

Remember this? The Food Pyramid, circa 1992

The new guidelines call for Americans to be conscious eaters.  After all, the top five sources of energy for Americans are yeast breads, mixed chicken dishes, soda/energy/sports drinks, and pizza.  Any of those sound like leafy greens?

Land of the Free, Home of the Couch Potato

The pyramid works on three important assumptions: the food categories must be filled with a variety of foods, those foods should be nutrient dense (without added sugars, saturated fats, and salt), and the caloric intake should not exceed energy needs.

Sedentary individuals, and thus most Americans, should lower their intakes of refined carbohydrates, greatly reducing intakes of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains that are high in calories, but relatively low in certain nutrients.”

Ouch— obesity is obviously a problem, but is the country really that definitely inactive?  It’s a scary thought to grasp.

Can a New Food Pyramid Really Make a Difference?

The USDA admits that the American diet in no way resembles the last set of recommendations from 2005.  So what changes this time around?  Well, for one, the pyramid is a little more relatable.  Instead of listing vague servings, the food amounts are specified with cups and ounces.  They also ask for half the grains you eat to be whole grains, and even lowered the daily allowance of sodium by a third— from 2300mg per day to 1500mg.

There are new vegetable sub-categories now too, so you can’t just count  your MickeyD’s hashbrown and tomato ketchup as a day’s worth of veggies.  Nope, you need to check off the dark green and orange veggie categories to meet the goal.

And see that little guy walking up the stairs?  The new pyramid has exercise right on it!  Not that this will make marathoners out of segway-riders, but still it drives the point home that diet and activity are directly related.

Is Low-Fat Where It’s At?

One of the biggest criticisms of the food pyramid is that it is based on a low fat diet.  Food Renegade argues that the obesity problem and diabetes crisis came on as people switched from whole foods like eggs and full-fat dairy to refined carbs and vegetable oils.

When I do eat dairy, I actually do prefer the full fat product because I feel that it is less processed, and less likely to be amped up with sugars for flavor.  However, I understand in a society that deep-fries everything, switching people over to low-fat dairy and lean meats can be a logical first step in “conscious” eating.

Who Can You Trust?

The other criticism of the guidelines is the idea that the government has a financial interest in “promoting the products of commodity agriculture“, which goes hand in hand with promoting processed foods.  I feel the focus on nutrient-dense foods and call against added sugars and salt show otherwise.

Another side of the government’s financial interest involves the pharmaceutical companies.  Healthy Eating Politics argues that cholesterol-lowering drugs are such big business that drug companies are able to influence the government into keeping the public focused on lowering their cholesterol levels, whether or not it’s the healthiest choice.

It comes down to listening to your body and trusting your gut.  I know I feel sluggish and bloated after eating dairy, and I know I feel good eating carbs after a work-out.  For me, recognizing these kinds of needs will never be trumped by somebody else’s guidelines.

Veggies at Work

The food pyramid has two large chunks devoted to animal-based foods, but the guidelines recognize many benefits of the vegetarian diet, including a lower body-mass index, lower levels of obesity, lower blood pressure. and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

There is a section devoted to seeing how the daily recommendations work for vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and people with plant based diets (basically flexitarians).  And guess what?  The vegetarian patterns meet almost all goals for nutrient adequacy, including protein and essential amino acids!

However, they mention that the requirements are only met by including fortified foods like cereals and soy products in order to get enough vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium.   Vegetarians also need to make an effort to get enough iron and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Our Own Slice of The Pyramid

The guidelines promise to provide some sample menus for vegetarian options at some mysterious future date…get on it USDA!  Still, it seems a lot of thought was put into balancing the veggie substitutions suggested; for example, tofu and fake meats were moved out of the veggie section and into the meat category, since the processing leaves them with less fiber than a straight up vegetable.

And to compensate for the extra calories to get the recommended amount of protein from beans, nuts, and seeds, the guidelines reduce the amount of oils in other areas.  (They are still stuck on the .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight though, and getting a quarter of protein from soy sources as they suggest is a little much for me.)

Vegetarian diets that include complementary mixtures of plant proteins can provide the same quality of protein as that from animal protein. Education is needed for those designing diets containing complementary proteins for consumers switching to a more plant-based diet. Additionally, individuals consuming vegetarian, particularly vegan, diets should ensure adequate intake of all nutrients.

The idea of education before switching to a plant based diet is carefully stressed. The most exciting part for new vegetarians is the interactive menu planner at MyPyramid.gov. There you can list the foods you eat, and it plops them into the correct sections of the pyramid.  Then it analyzes results by day or by week based on your personal stats and activity level and offers tips on where to improve.

I did it myself, and though the master list of foods lacks choices like arugula and quinoa, I still found listings for staples like flaxseed and bulgur.  Try it out and see how your diet stacks up!

So what do you think?  Will a “conscious” food pyramid make a difference on America’s health?  Is it worth trusting a possibly-influenced USDA for diet advice?  Is the pyramid an adequate resource for vegetarian nutrition?

The information about the guidelines and food pyramid is from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes Part B. Section 2: The Total Diet: Combining Nutrients, Consuming Food, Appendix E-3.3
Vegetarian Food Patterns: Food Pattern Modeling Analysis
, and Part D. Section 4: Protein.



Dig this post?
Spread the word!

Keep in touch:

Everything that Might Be Missing from Your Plant-Based Diet (and Nothing Else!)

complementI believe that plant-based is the healthiest way you can eat -- both for how you feel and perform in the short term, and for long-term health. But there are a few nutrients that are hard to get from plants, and I didn't want to take a whole multivitamin with so much extra that I'm already getting from my food. That's why I created Complement Plus, the perfect nutrient formula for plant-based athletes.

Complement Plus brings together, in one place, the essential nutrients that are missing from a reasonably diverse, whole food plant-based diet:
  • B12
  • D3
  • DHA/EPA Omega-3s
  • K2
  • Minerals like zinc, iodine, and selenium
It's everything that might be missing from your plant-based diet, with nothing extra. Click here to learn more.


  1. What do I think? Good steps in the right direction, but my head just about fell off when I read that the government is still holding onto the faulty notion that we need to eat complimentary plant sources to get our protein.

    The woman that invented this bit of fiction, recanted in 1981 – almost 30 years ago. The American Dietetic Association doesn’t believe this is necessary. And leading physicians who have made their life’s work studying nutrition think it’s a bunch of hooey.

    Unless a diet is primarily made up of junk food, eating enough calories will provide enough protein. Period.

    • The whole idea is that you get all eight essential amino acids. But there is no need to eat them all at one meal. As long as someone’s diet is balanced, they will get all eight throughout the day. Animal proteins are just supply all eight at once. Besides, most culture, through unconscious trial and error, have combinations that provide all eight, such as beans and rice.

  2. I think they have a long way to go on making the food pyramid comprehensively healthy, but at least they’re making strides.

  3. I agree about the low-fat issue. The ingredients used to make something low-fat aren’t necessarily good for you. And I really hope salt is the next thing that the food industry tackles like they have with trans fat.

    Dr Weil has a similar food pyramid that looks a little more pesca-/veggie-/vegan-friendly:


  4. Thanks so much for posting this. I really appreciate your opinions on the changes to the pyramid.
    I agree with you and others on the fat issue. Focusing on nutrition instead of low- or non-fat has helped me maintain the weight that I want and feel healthy. If I’m going to consume the dairy products to begin with, they probably taste better and are more satiating with some (or all) fat.

  5. Interesting blog post. I gave the My Pyramid a bash. No surprises I am overweight and need to get it down. Have lost 29 lbs since starting running so its coming down slowly.

    However I clicked the exercise advice and it says:

    About 60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity may be needed to prevent weight gain. For those who have lost weight, at least 60 to 90 minutes a day may be needed to maintain the weight loss. At the same time, calorie needs should not be exceeded. Children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day, or most days.

    So lets say before I started running (good old couch potato to 5k,) this would have terrified me. So you work really hard to lose weight and this thing says you need to do 60-90 mins EVERY DAY to keep the weight off!!!

    This probably would have sent me off to the cookie jar with hot sweats.

    I run a fair amount each day but I do not get anywhere near 60-90 mins a day exercise. I am sure its fine for you 50 miles but for those of us setting out to fight the flab this is scary advice indeed.

  6. vegpedlr says:

    Type 2 diabetes is caused by a diet high in fat- of any kind. It promotes insulin resistance and disrupts cellular energy metabolism. Check out Dr. Neal Barnard’s peer reviewed research using a low fat vegan diet to reverse diabetes. Dr. McDougall and Dr. Fuhrman do the same in clinical practice. “Low fat” in these cases refers to 10-15% of calories from fat. The research studies that denigrate low fat diets never test a diet that low in fat, but that is where disease reversal occurs, as shown by the research. Ditch the oil, butter and cheese along with the refined carbohydrate and you will feel the difference. Especially the oil, since it is the very definition of an empty calorie junk food, even worse than sugar, due to its higher calorie concentration and near instantaneous arterial injury.

  7. I suppose it’s a step in the good direction, but I don’t think it will change the way people eat or think. They will go on stuffing themselves with burgers and french fries, because usually it’s cheaper (and faster) eating junk food than whole, nutritious food 🙁

    For me, it won’t change anything. As you said, I listen to my body. It’s useful to read different points of view, to stay informed, but at the end it’s you who have to decide how to eat and what it’s the best way to do it.

  8. No mention of Essential Fatty Acids, something most people are actually deficient in. And it never fails to irk me that meat-eaters are never advised to ensure adequate intake of all nutrients, when most meat-eaters barely eat any fruit and vegetables.

  9. Looking at the pyramid superficially (which most people will simply do)reminds me of the old basic 4 food group, an advertisement to school children by the meat and dairy industry. Without going in depth about all the harm in dairy, personally I rid 99% of my allergies that plagued me for the great majority of my life when I had cut it out. Thus I disagree about the 20% dairy intake.

    Reading the literature in depth, it is nice that whole grains is emphasized to help lead people away from the white bread and white rice that’s readily available. In addition, it is nice to see the legumes & alternatives added to the meat section.

    I wasn’t surprised to see the overemphasis (my opinion) on calorie counting. I do think it can be worthwhile for some people who plan it right, but sometimes I sometimes think it’s an attempt to discourage the great public from really looking into nutrition. Especially when they’re purchasing processed foods have labels written “less calories!”

    Personally, when eating good balanced whole foods (including fruits to satisfy the sweet tooth) I feel my body naturally tells me to stop eating at the right time, having taking in the right amount of calories my body needs. It’s when I eat nutritionally deficient foods that’s when I binge eat, as my body is craving for any additional little nutrient it can get.

  10. Thank you for sharing! I am checking out this site in 3, 2, NOW!

  11. I think the updated food pyramid is a step in the right direction…but there’s still some things that could be fixed.

    For one, I really can’t understand why Dairy is on the pyramid at all. If you break down the components, it’s saying Carbs (grains, fruits, veggies), protein (meat, beans, nuts), and fat. Oh, and cow breast milk…(whaaa?)

    I’m not ragging on people who drink milk. I’m just saying it’s not a vital component of a healthy diet!

  12. I know this post is a few days old, but I didn’t get a chance to chime in!

    First I wanted to post a link to the Power Plate (http://pcrm.org/health/powerplate/), an alternative to the new food pyramid, and brainchild of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (of which Dr. Neal Barnard, mentioned in the comments section earlier, is founder and President). The Power Plate site is based on an ENTIRELY plant based died, and includes recipes for each of the four food group.

    As far as “milk” being recommended as a part of a healthy diet, I’ve got a comment for that too. First off, I must admit I love cheese and yogurt, so I’m not slamming dairy’s role in a delicious meal, I’m talking about NUTRITION. As a healthcare practitioner I had alot of questions about the advice I had been given in magazines, doctors offices, my mom’s kitchen… so I took a more extensive Nutrition class. My professor was an amazing woman, who attended the unveiling of the new “food pyramid”. Many RD’s in attendance were shut down when asking the pyramids presenters about the necessity of the “Milk” group (especially when discussing recent studies LINKING animal based proteins to osteoporosis). Responses to their queries were brief…but really the only answer you need is to look at the endorsements for the Pyramid, the folks who paid for it: American Dairy Council and Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Nuff said.

  13. I have been a vegetarian for a year. My daughters stopped eating meat way before me so I am just catching up.

    I’m so glad to see a newly developed food pyramind to include vegetarian options. I know it has a long way to go but having something back us up helps us not to look like we are just on a foolish fad diet and hopefully it will lead to better options when dinning out.

    I am new to this “No Meat Athlete” site and I could not be more thrilled with EVERYTHING! I love it… and again, thanks to my daughter for showing it to me.

    I do have one comment though. It is the use of “THE” Government. We are Americans and this is OUR government. As a United States Navy Sailor I get a bit offended when OUR government is refered to as an alien entity.


Leave a Comment