Wheels, Pyramids and Plates
Information about nutrition and what people should eat to stay healthy changed throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Originally presented as a way to apply scientific thinking to everyday life, advice about healthy eating was adapted by nutritionists to the changing times. In the Great Depression, nutrition advice focused on doing more with less and during World War II, nutrition advice took on an air of patriotic fervor. Over the years, nutritionists presented nutrition advice differently, moving from long-winded explanations complete with detailed scientific facts, to simplified food groups represented visually.
In North Carolina, the Home Demonstration division of the Agricultural Extension Service brought nutrition advice directly to rural communities through a network of home demonstration agents distributed across the state. North Carolina remained a comparatively rural and poverty-stricken state throughout the 1910s to the 1950s, prompting the Extension Service to emphasize cost-effective ways of feeding the family a healthy and balanced diet not only during national times of scarcity, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but also throughout the postwar period.
Of course, nutrition advice is still changing. As scientists refine their knowledge about the relationship between our bodies and the food we eat and as the health challenges facing America shift, so too does nutrition advice. For many years, nutritionists across America focused on preventing malnutrition due to unbalanced diets and undernourishment due to food scarcity. Though many Americans still struggle to meet the nutritional needs of their families, obesity has become a major health concern. As a result, newer nutrition guides have included advice about exercise and fitness. In 2011, the USDA’s most recent set of dietary recommendations replaced the well-known Food Pyramid with MyPlate, which includes guidelines such as “enjoy your food, but eat less,” “avoid oversized portions,” and “drink water instead of sugary drinks.” This stands in stark contrast to earlier sets of recommendations such as the Basic Seven, which not only included butter and fortified margarine as its own food group, but also encouraged Americans to “eat any other foods you want.”