In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dietary Guidelines

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Reports of the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees
  • Dietary Guidelines for Special Populations
  • Icons and Guidelines: International

Public Health Dietary Guidelines
Kathryn M. Kolasa, Katherine Rickett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0023


Dietary guidelines or recommendations are suggestions to help adults and children consume foods and beverages that support growth and development and reduce risks for chronic diseases. Dietary guidelines, first introduced in the United States in the late 1800s, focused on protective foods. As the science of nutrition evolved and nutrients were discovered, the guidelines focused on the consumption of foods to provide adequate nutrients. Since the late 1970s, known human nutritional requirements, both deficiencies and excesses, became the common foundation for the United States and other countries developing food-based dietary guidelines for their populations. Guidelines appear both in scientific language (e.g., limit consumption of saturated fat) and as food-based recommendations, sometimes including graphics and icons of food groupings. Guidelines serve multiple purposes from educating consumers to guiding policy makers and regulators. Since 1980, Dietary Guidelines for Americans has referred to a specific set of guidelines issued jointly by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and recognized as federal nutrition policy. Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be found at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion website. Current consumer education about the guidelines can be found at the USDA’s Choose My Plate. Agencies of the United Nations (the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization) and other countries also provide guidance. Access to guidelines from countries around the world is at the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Food Guidelines by Country. Many health organizations (e.g., American Heart Association, American Institute for Cancer Research) also review the role of diet and disease prevention and publish dietary guidelines or recommendations for both the general public and specific audiences. The focus of this article will be on the events leading to the current “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and a description of those guidelines. Some information about international dietary guidance is also provided.

Introductory Works

This section contains the history of early diet guides (1800–1970), primarily from the United States. Nutrition science has been translated into dietary recommendations, often as food charts, food posters, and food-based icons since the late 1800s, primarily with a focus on protective foods. The goal for authors of guidelines was to provide guidance with maximum simplicity consistent with scientific facts, available foods, and acceptable food patterns in the country in which they are used. The first national US food guide was presented in 1916 with five groups. The science of nutrition was still very young and new essential vitamins were still being discovered. Hertzler and Anderson 1974 and Welsh, et al. 1993 provide details of the dietary guidance offered the public. In 1941, the National Dairy Council developed “A Guide to Good Eating,” which consisted of seven food groups. A similar guide, but with different emphasis, was announced in 1943 as part of the USDA National Wartime Nutrition Program. The announcement of the first Recommended Dietary Allowances in 1943 led to an increased emphasis on nutrient adequacy. These dietary recommendations were relatively noncontroversial since they focused on adequacy of nutrient intake or avoiding deficiencies. With the aim to promote variety in food consumption and provide a plan to select a diet adequate in protective foods, the Basic 7, a system that categorized foods into seven groups, was introduced in 1943. In 1954 the four-food-group system was introduced, and variations of it were used as a nutrition education tool until the introduction of the Pyramid in 1992. Each new plan came with mixed reception from various audiences. Some of the reactions question the interpretation of the science, while other reactors provide suggestions for improvement in describing and communicating the science to consumers. Hayes, et al. 1955 felt the nutrition education tool needed to be simpler than the Basic 7 food groups. Hertzler and Anderson 1974 shows that, just as with earlier food guides, the current system was then under fire, and understanding the history of food guides might give perspective. Trusswell 1995 provides the author’s candid views on why some guides are met with resistance and others are more readily accepted, while Welsh, et al. 1993 gives a more official mainstream view of the development of dietary guidance.

  • Hayes, O., M. F. Trulson, and F. J. Stare. 1955. Suggested revisions of the Basic 7. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 31.11: 1103–1107.

    Questions if the Basic 7 achieves simplicity and effectiveness as an educational tool; two simpler plans are proposed: one with two groups, energy foods and protective foods, showing a balance of the two for groups with limited nutrition education, and a proposed graphic in the form of a shield for health, with four groups for countries like the US with abundant and varied food supplies.

  • Hertzler, A. A., and H. L. Anderson. 1974. Food guides in the United States: An historical review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 64.1: 19–28.

    Historical review of food guides from the 1880s through the development of the four food groups, used with only minor changes since 1957. Considerations used in developing food guides include nutritional and dietary status of the population, food patterns, food availability and its nutritive value, and food economics. The use of familiar names of foods and limiting the number of groups make these guides consumer friendly.

  • Trusswell, A. Stewart. 1995. Dietary guidelines: Theory and practice. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of Australia 19:1–10.

    Personal insights from an internationally recognized nutrition scientist into the process of developing and disseminating guidelines and reasons for the mixed reception that the promulgation of dietary guidelines receives in various countries.

  • Welsh, Susan O., Carole Davis, and Anne Shaw. 1993. USDA’s food guide: Background and development. Hyattsville, MD: Nutrition Education Division, Human Nutrition Information Service, US Department of Agriculture.

    Traces the evolution of the nutrition message over one hundred years. Table outlines major USDA food guides from 1916 to 1992.

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