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Rural Practice Guidelines


The Wise Choices Food Pyramid: What if We Did Compare Apples and Oranges?

July 2008

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With our more sedentary lives and readily available food, Americans’ waistlines are growing and chronic diseases related to nutrition – diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers – are on the rise. Our abundant diets are relatively less healthy than those of the past. These trends make it important to learn to make better choices among the many foods available in grocery stores and at meal times. The goal of our project was to create a visual guide to healthy foods. The Wise Choices Food Pyramid helps individuals make better nutritional choices.

Historically, whole foods have been categorized into food groups according to their shared essential nutrients. The USDA MyPyramid1 illustrates the need for variety, moderation, and balance among the basic groups of grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, dairy, meat and beans, and discretionary calories (formerly called “extras”).

The Wise Choices Food Pyramid provides additional visual guidance within a food group to help an individual select foods that supply the most nutritional benefit. Within each of the groups, foods in the Wise Choices Pyramid are ranked from left to right, according to their contributions of beneficial and essential nutrients. These rankings help individuals follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans2 recommendation to “choose wisely within a food group.” The Wise Choices Food Pyramid is based on the most current scientific information now available on healthy diets and “functional foods.”

Functional foods are foods or parts of food ─ such as nutrients ─ that go beyond basic nutrition and provide specific health benefits. There is much new knowledge about the health-promoting properties of some foods and food components.

More than Adequate

The Wise Choices Food Pyramid follows scientific recommendations to eat “nutrient dense” foods. They can provide additional benefits to help prevent important chronic diseases.

Nutrient density is the amount of healthy nutrients in a food, compared to its calorie count. For example, a slice of whole grain bread and a small cupcake may have the same number of calories. However, calorie-for-calorie, the bread provides more nutrients. It is more nutrient dense and is a wiser choice.

We ranked foods on the Wise Choices Food Pyramid based on evidence from*:

USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans2, American Heart Association3, American Cancer Society3, American Dietetic Association3,5, American Academy of Pediatrics3, Division of Nutrition Research Coordination of the National Institutes of Health3, American Society for Clinical Nutrition3, and International Food Information Council Foundation4

*Does not imply endorsement of the Wise Choices Food Pyramid.

MyPyramid, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the Wise Choices Food Pyramid recommendations are for the general public over 2 years of age. The Wise Choices Food Pyramid is not a therapeutic diet. Individuals with a chronic health condition should consult their health care provider to develop an appropriate individual diet. The Wise Choices Pyramid reflects current knowledge about the foods depicted. A particular food’s exact location on the Wise Choices Food Pyramid continuum is not fixed and could change as evidence evolves.

Messages in the Wise Choices Food Pyramid

Grains: Choose whole grains, which are located on the left side of the Pyramid, for their disease-fighting phytochemicals, antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Fruits and Vegetables: Fill up on a colorful variety of fresh, frozen, canned and/or dried fruits and vegetables. ANY one of the fruits or vegetables on the Wise Choices Food Pyramid is a good choice, but those toward the left side are even better options.

Protein: Get more fiber, fewer calories, and less saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet by choosing more beans, lentils, soy products, fish, nuts, and seeds. Avoid salty, processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts.

Dairy: Cut calories and add calcium with non-fat or reduced-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Extras: Choose the “extras” that add extra flavor and interest to your diet without adding extra sugar, fat and calories. The group of Extras on the left side shows healthier alternatives to the foods in the group on the right. For example, choose 100% juice instead of soda pop, or choose pretzels in place of potato chips.

Portions: Eating moderately by choosing proper portion sizes is still important. Eating from the left side of the Wise Choices Food Pyramid is not a license to eat too much!

Description of Wise Choices Pyramid

Wise Choices Pyramid, showing grains, vegetables & fruit, protein, dairy & extras

An 18″ x 24″ Pyramid poster is available for sale online at The University of Montana Bookstore.
Kathleen Humphries, Good Nutrition Ideas © 2008.



1. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. (2005). MyPyramid Food Guidance System. Washington, DC.: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

2. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, & Agricultural Research Service. (2005). Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/U.S. Department of Agriculture.

3. Deckelbaum, R., Fisher, E., Winston, M., Kumanyika, S., Lauer, R., Pi-Sunyer, F., St. Jeor, S., Schaefer, E., & Weinstein, I. (1999). Summary of a scientific conference on preventive nutrition: Pediatrics to geriatrics. Circulation, 100:450-456.

4. International Food Information Council Foundation. Background on Functional Foods. Accessed March 1, 2006 at: http://www.foodinsight.org/Background_on_Functional_Foods

5. American Dietetic Association. (2004). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Functional foods. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104:814-826.

For more information, visit Good Nutrition Ideas or contact:

Kathleen Humphries, PhD
Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities
The University of Montana Rural Institute: A Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Services, 52 Corbin Hall, Missoula, MT 59812-7056
888-268-2743 toll-free; 406-243-5467 V; 406-243-4200 TTY; 406-243-2349 (fax)
ruralinstitute@umt.edu  http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu  https://mtdh.ruralinstitute.umt.edu

Suggested citation: Humphries, K. (2008, July). The Wise Choices Food Pyramid: What if we did compare apples and oranges? Rural Practice Guidelines. Missoula: The University of Montana Rural Institute.

This document is supported by Cooperative Agreement #R04/CCR823272-01 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The contents are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the CDC. This guideline was prepared by Kathleen Humphries © RTC: Rural, July 2008.