For nearly as long as humans have been consuming food, there have been some sort of dietary guidelines to follow. Selecting and preparing appropriate foods started out as oral history with indigenous people passing food traditions down from generation to generation. Historically, written religious dictates on diet can be found in Old Testament Bible passages and remain the basis for some kosher food laws still in practice today.
One of the first biblical references is the well-known passage in Genesis 25: 27-34, where Esau sells his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. And appearing in Ezekiel 4:9 is a description of the use of beans and lentils in a bread recipe.
Over time, all countries, cultures, and regions have developed their own cultural, economic, and social practices related to food, known as foodways. With all this ancient input, it seems fitting that official food guidelines borrowed a shape from ancient architecture and eventually fashioned these recommendations into pyramid form.
According to Cooperative Union, when it came to recommendations on content and quantity of food in the diet, Sweden led the way. Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare developed the first food pyramid in 1974. The model eventually spread to other Scandinavian countries, and, eventually, abroad.
By 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) put forth its own “Eating Right Pyramid” and has been trying to balance recommendations, health data, and influence from various producer’s lobbyists ever since. The USDA’s first version broke the triangle down into six horizontal sections outlining food choices and recommended portions per day. The original pyramid called for daily servings from each of the following categories: bread, cereal, rice, and pasta; fruit; vegetables; dairy; meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts; and lastly, limited amounts of fats, oils and sweets.
In 2005 the USDA revised the pyramid into pie-shaped vertical wedges, renaming the design “My Pyramid” and tweaking some elements into different amounts and categories. Six years later in 2011, the USDA abandoned the pyramid for the round “My Plate” model. The new design was thought to be simpler.
According to the Center4Research.org the design uses a place setting model to indicate food choices throughout the day. The plate portion divides the food groups into quadrants relating to portion sizes and includes servings of vegetables, grains, fruits, and proteins. A round glass-like circle to the side of the plate encompasses recommended dairy servings.
Many of the changes in dietary guidelines in the U.S. and abroad over the years have stemmed from scientific data linking diet to health. That data has led to increased recommendations for pulses across the globe. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that pulses are nutritional—rich in vitamins and minerals, high in protein, rich in fiber, and low in fat. Pulses have been gaining momentum as studies continue to show that a plant-rich diet that includes pulses may help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. The importance pulses play in a healthy diet was highlighted when the United Nations named 2016 the International Year of Pulses.
Today, beans, lentils, and other pulses are not only being included in dietary guidelines but encouraged; U.S. Dietary Guidelines encourage servings totaling 3-cups of pulses per week. Although the USDA incorporates pulses in its protein category, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that other countries like Brazil, Greece, India, and South Africa consider pulses important enough to include as a stand-alone food group. And like the U.S., Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Spain are providing specific recommendations for weekly portions.
In addition to its nutritional benefits, plant-based foods have the added benefit of being sustainable—producing lower greenhouse gas emissions, capturing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, and requiring less land and water than animal-based proteins. With global populations estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050, a diet with more plant-based foods is not only good for the people, but good for the planet, as well!