We need a weirder food pyramid

Illustration by Claire Zimmerman.

Let me be clear in saying that “Food Opinion” spans much more than recipes and ingredients. I have far too many opinions to limit myself to such confining categories. I have some strong thoughts on the way we teach children to view food, but it is important to cover the basics of past methods first.

The USDA first introduced the food pyramid in 1992, when the world was falling apart at the seams for lack of structure and guidance at the dinner table. Although the government will never admit it, I contend that this move was reactionary in nature. 1991 brought the smash hit “Silence of the Lambs,” a film so influential that it threatened to turn our notions of nutrition upside down. Jeb Bush’s dad was in the dwindling days of his presidency and, in my professional opinion, knew he had little time to ensure the facial integrity of U.S. citizens. Under his guidance, the food pyramid was born: a categorical set of nutritional guidelines which carefully excluded human flesh from its dietary recommendations. The pyramid existed in its original form for 13 years until it was shaken to its core by a new design, one featuring an ominous faceless human figure ascending stairs tacked on the side of the pyramid.

2005’s design went beyond its intended purpose of educating children about healthy eating; it also taught children that new designs are not necessarily better than the old and that the proportions of a triangle split from its base to its apex are nearly impossible to differentiate. The shadow figure continued its rise into the nightmares of children across the nation while food illustrations fell to the bottom of the diagram, taking our collective dignity with it. I have no evidence for this change’s effect on the national psyche, but I recall reacting to the pyramid with disgust and cannot imagine any reaction other than my own. The new design was also strangely fitting for a 2005 America—an outdated structure of authority, loaded with an obscene amount of food and set against the graying backdrop of a dying industrial wasteland. Despite Jeb Bush’s brother’s best efforts, I am certain the revised pyramid was nothing short of an absolute failure and a national embarrassment.

Barack Obama’s inspirational campaign ushered in a new era of hope for America, one fundamentally built on the concept of a healthier nation. Although there were bumps along the way, his campaign promises finally came to fruition with the introduction of a new iteration of the food pyramid in 2011. This iteration was no pyramid at all; the new design was designated as the MyPlate guideline, featuring a place-setting sectioned off by the different food groups. Although an improvement on the past design, MyPlate was so singularly forgettable that you probably forgot that we have moved on from using an actual pyramid for the food pyramid. The most important thing about this lineage of redesigns is its pacing. Based on the 19-year interim between the introduction of the original pyramid and its circular successor, we should be getting a new food guideline in 2030, and I think I know the shape that will be the best fit for America. It is hard to imagine, considering the length of time between now and then—we will have seen at least four more of those blue people Avatar sequels and what I can only assume to be hundreds more Marvel movies—yet I will forge onward, like a snarky writer with too much time on his hands and a severe overestimation of the level of charm in his writing.

The next food guideline shape, my friends, should and will be the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall (WDCH) brings the food pyramid back to its roots in architecture, mirroring a building that will surely last for thousands of years like the pyramids have. The WDCH is replete with shiny surfaces and sick slopes for skating, which automatically makes it a huge draw for the coolest toddlers and tweens. More than anything else, using the WCDH as the next shape for USDA nutritional guidelines allows for the introduction of more complex food groups, groups essential for navigating the shifting world of adult food. One surface, for example, could be specifically devoted to the chocolate milk you drink in the morning because you think you might work out later and one of your coworkers said they think drinking chocolate milk when you work out is healthy, or maybe it was drinking it after you work out, although that doesn’t really sound like a real thing, but hey, chocolate milk is delicious, so maybe you can give it a try, but then you end up not working out anyway so you just drank chocolate milk for nothing. That’s just one example! There could also be a category for mushy foods, but I will save my thoughts on that for another week.

Changing the shape of the USDA nutritional guidelines can also serve another purpose in 2030, assuming that Mr. “The Rock” Johnson’s theatrical depictions of California have been correct. After most of the west coast sinks into the sea, using the WDCH as the successor to the food pyramid and MyPlate will also function as a moving memorial to the best large-scale work of crushed soda can concept art the country has ever seen. The future is a terrifying place and the looming specter of a terrible MyPlate redesign in 2024 is enough to make even the bravest person shake in their Dr. Martens, but we can all find hope in a shape—the WDCH—that will help us navigate whatever horrible nutritional hellscape we will call home in 2030.

Dan Meyer