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Food pyramids


Related terms
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Related Terms
  • Asian food pyramid, Harvard food pyramid, Latin American food pyramid, Mediterranean food pyramid, USDA food pyramid, vegetarian food pyramid.

  • A food pyramid is a pictorial representation of a diet that makes recommendations of how much a person should consume from each food group every day. The most popular food pyramids in circulation are the Asian food pyramid, Harvard food pyramid, Latin American food pyramid, Mediterranean food pyramid, USDA food pyramid, and the vegetarian food pyramid.
  • The food pyramids are all comprised of food groups. However, the number of food groups in a diet and the frequency that they are eaten varies between the pyramids. The diets represented in the food pyramids are not intended to help a person lose weight. Instead, they represent proportions of what a healthy adult should eat to stay healthy and maintain a normal weight.
  • The first food pyramid was created and distributed by the USDA in 1992. In 2005, the USDA released a revision of the food pyramid that clarifies serving sizes and advocates for exercise as a part of a healthy lifestyle. The USDA website offers personalized recommendations based on gender, age, weight, and level of physical activity.
  • Though the USDA publishes the primary food pyramid, a number of other food pyramids have been created to accommodate the cultural eating practices of subgroups within the United States. One of these pyramids is created by the Harvard School of Public Health out of concern that the USDA may have created their eating recommendations with too much influence from food industry advocacy organizations. The Asian, Latin American, Mediterranean, and vegetarian pyramids were created by the organization Oldways, which advocates for consumption of foods based on daily, weekly and monthly eating cycles.
  • The food pyramids are designed as a quick visual reference for individuals to modify their diets in order to keep their bodies healthy and prevent disease. The diagrams are designed to be flexible enough that a person can eat a variety of foods every day while still getting a healthy amount of vitamins and minerals. The pyramids suggest a number of servings of foods already popular within a particular demographic.
  • Diets may vary because of factors such as personal preference and cultural affinity. Also, experts disagree on some of the specifics of what a food pyramid should look like although all agree on the importance of getting basic nutrition. These differences of opinion have led to a number of different food pyramids.

Theory / Evidence
  • The USDA food pyramid is based on the 2005 Dietary Guides for Americans, a joint publication of the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA. It is intended to serve as a quick mental and visual reference for patients who wish to improve their diets.
  • The other food pyramids are based on the concept of the USDA food pyramid. The Harvard food pyramid was created as an alternative to the food groups and suggested serving sizes that are presented in the USDA food pyramid. The Oldways food pyramids draw from traditions of healthy eating among certain populations of the United States and offer modified food groups for these individuals. Proponents of the vegetarian food pyramid note epidemiological data suggesting that this diet may lower risk of chronic diseases and may increase adult life expectancy.


Author information
  • This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Harvard School of Public Health Food Pyramid.
  3. Oldways Food Pyramids.
  4. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Pyramid.
  5. United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

  • USDA food pyramid: This food pyramid is organized by daily intake of food. Thirty minutes of daily exercise is also recommended. Unlike some of the other pyramids, this one does not offer examples of foods that may fit into each category. The USDA food pyramid is the most general.
  • Daily fruits: A person should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. Fresh fruits should be chosen over juice. A person should eat about two cups every day.
  • Daily grains: The USDA recommends that at least half of the grains eaten every day are consumed as whole grains. This amount is equal to 6 ounces every day.
  • Meat, beans, fish, nuts, eggs, and soy: All of the foods in this group are recommended as excellent sources of protein.
  • Daily milk, yogurt and cheese: The USDA advises that a majority of the three cups of dairy consumed should be low-fat or no-fat.
  • Daily oils: Oily foods should be consumed only in very small amounts. The USDA recommends oils from fish, nut and some vegetable sources. Butter, margarine, lard, and hydrogenated oils are not recommended.
  • Daily vegetables: Vegetables are recommended daily, with an emphasis on dark green vegetables and brightly colored vegetables, as well as beans. Beans are also classified as a source of protein. The recommended daily intake is about 2.5 cups every day.
  • Asian food pyramid: The Oldways Asian food pyramid offers diet suggestions based on daily, weekly and monthly eating cycles. Some parts of the Asian food pyramid are not intended to be eaten every day. Each of the major groups is listed by frequency followed by examples of foods that fit into this category. This pyramid also recommends daily exercise.
  • Daily rice, noodles, breads, millet, corn, and other whole grains.
  • Daily fruits: Pineapples, bananas, mangos, tangerines, watermelon, grapes, pears.
  • Daily legumes, seeds and nuts: Soybeans, peanuts, dried beans, edamame beans, miso, tofu.
  • Daily vegetables: Carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, bok choy, cabbage, bamboo shoots, chilis, bean sprouts, scallions, leafy greens, peppers.
  • Daily vegetable oils: In small amounts and in moderation.
  • Daily fish and shellfish or dairy (optional).
  • Weekly sweets.
  • Weekly poultry and eggs.
  • Monthly meats: pork, beef, mutton.
  • Harvard food pyramid: The Harvard food pyramid was designed to emphasize exercise and weight control. This is because its creators consider these two lifestyle factors crucial in staying healthy. The food groups and frequency that items from each are to be consumed are based on research regarding prevention of common diseases among Americans.
  • Daily whole grains: This pyramid recommends the consumption of carbohydrates from whole grains such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice at every meal. Eating these foods is advised as a way to regulate blood sugar and prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Daily plant oils: Unsaturated fats from canola, corn, peanut, soy, or sunflower plants should be consumed along with unsaturated fats from fatty fish such as salmon. The Harvard food pyramid places these oils at the bottom of the pyramid because they are the source of about a third of most Americans' calories from fat. These fats are thought to lower bad cholesterol and improve heart health.
  • Daily fruits and vegetables: Fruits should be consumed two to three times a day. Vegetables should be consumed even more often and in abundance. Proponents of this food pyramid suggest that these foods may lower the chances of having a stroke or heart attack, lower blood pressure and protect against cancer and vision problems.
  • Daily fish, poultry and eggs: An important source of protein, foods from this group should be consumed zero to two times a day.
  • Nuts and legumes: The foods are recommended as good sources of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. Legumes include lentils, black beans, garbanzos, and navy beans. Nuts include pistachios, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, and pecans.
  • Dairy or calcium supplement: These products are recommended because they contain less saturated fat than milk or cheese.
  • Daily multivitamin: This supplement is described as a "nutritional backup" because developing healthy eating habits can be a goal that takes time to achieve.
  • Sparing amounts of red meat and butter: This food pyramid suggests that individuals substitute these foods with alternatives such as chicken, fish, lean meats, and vegetable oils as many times as possible during the week.
  • Sparing amounts of white rice, potatoes, white bread, white pasta, soda, and sweets: Proponents of this pyramid note that these foods may increase blood sugar, the risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as potentially result in weight gain, heart disease, and other chronic health problems. Whole grains are suggested as an alternative.
  • Moderate amounts of alcohol: One drink a day is recommended for adults who drink alcohol.
  • Latin American food pyramid: The Oldways Latin American food pyramid offers diet suggestions based on daily and weekly eating cycles. Each of the major food groups is listed by frequency followed by examples of foods that fit into each group. This pyramid also recommends daily exercise.
  • Fruits at every meal: Limes, bananas, avocados, cacao, breadfruit, plums, apples, berries, papayas, mangos, cherimoya, guanabana, pineapple, melon, tamarind, quince, grapes, guava, oranges, kiwi.
  • Vegetables at every meal: Kale, cactus, eggplant, turnip, chard, squash, zucchini, onions, broccoli, okra, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, tomatillos, sweet peppers, chiles.
  • Whole grains, tubers, pasta, beans, and nuts at every meal: Maize, potatoes, rice, bread, taro, tortillas, arepas, black beans, seeds, quinoa, malanga, peanuts, amaranth, legumes, cassava, pecans, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, plantains, yuca, garbanzo beans, pinto beans.
  • Daily fish and shellfish: Shrimp, salmon, snapper, mussels.
  • Daily plant oils and dairy products: Plant oils (soy, corn, olive), milk, cheese.
  • Daily poultry: Fowl, turkey, chicken.
  • Six glasses of water a day.
  • Weekly meat, sweets and eggs.
  • Alcohol in moderation.
  • Mediterranean food pyramid: The Oldways Mediterranean food pyramid offers diet suggestions based on daily and weekly eating cycles. Each of the major food groups is listed by frequency followed by examples of foods that fit into each group. This pyramid also recommends daily exercise.
  • Daily bread, pasta, rice, couscous, polenta, other whole grains, and potatoes.
  • Daily beans, legumes and nuts: Almonds, walnuts and other nuts; chick peas, white beans, lentils and other beans; peanuts.
  • Daily fruits: Olives, avocados, grapes.
  • Daily vegetables: Spinach, eggplant, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, garlic, capers, beans.
  • Daily olive oil.
  • Daily cheese and yogurt.
  • Weekly fish: Shellfish, sardines.
  • Weekly poultry: Chicken, turkey.
  • Weekly eggs.
  • Weekly sweets: Pastries, ice cream, cookies.
  • Monthly meat: Beef, pork.
  • Moderate consumption of wine.
  • Vegetarian food pyramid: The Oldways vegetarian food pyramid offers diet suggestions based on daily and weekly eating cycles. Each of the major food groups is listed by frequency followed by examples of foods that fit into each group. This pyramid also recommends daily exercise.
  • Dietary supplements as necessary with special attention to vitamins D and B12.
  • Whole foods and minimally processed foods are recommended over highly processed foods.
  • Fruits and vegetables at every meal: Grapes, raisins, pears, avocados, oranges, melon, apples, bananas, plums, cherries, mushrooms, tomatoes, kale, broccoli, collards, sweet potatoes, peppers, asparagus, cucumber, potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, squash, leeks, eggplant, celery, lettuce.
  • Legumes, beans and soy at every meal: Soy, red bean, lentil, kidney bean, tempeh, tofu, black-eyed pea, dried pea, soy flour, textured vegetable protein, navy bean, miso, pinto bean, split pea, lima bean, chick pea, black bean.
  • Whole grains at every meal: Oats, wheat, rice, buckwheat, flax, bulgur, quinoa, amaranth, seitan, millet, barley, whole grain bread, rye, pita, tortilla, rice cakes, couscous, noodles, kasha, pasta, corn.
  • Daily egg whites, soymilk and dairy: cheese, yogurt.
  • Daily nuts and seeds: Pine, walnut, pistachio, brazil, pecan, almond, sesame, cashew, pumpkin, hazelnut, macadamia, peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds.
  • Daily plant oils: Corn, canola, avocado, olive, soybean, safflower, peanut.
  • Occasional eggs and sweets.
  • Alcohol in moderation.

Copyright © 2011 Natural Standard (

The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.

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