Exploring Dietary Guidelines Around the World

How do dietary guidelines in other countries compare to the U.S.? Let's find out.


Every five years, the USDA gets together with the Department of Health and Human Services to revise our country’s dietary guidelines. According to Health.gov, the purpose of these guidelines is to “form the basis of federal food, nutrition education, and information programs.”

The last couple of updates have brought about big changes. In 2005, we had an unfortunate update that took the out-dated food pyramid and flipped it on its side — making it even more confusing, especially for the kids.

Then in 2010, we scrapped that (and with it all of the MyPyramid materials we had in our classrooms) and got the new MyPlate method. Even though it meant new planning and work for health teachers, I think everyone was pleased. The plate made much more sense and it’s a great visual when trying to teach kids about balance.

The U.S.'s Food Pyramid from 2005.Well, now we’re getting another update, but luckily it looks like they’re sticking with the plate. No need to clean out those cupboards just yet. In fact, there aren’t too many changes at all.

Before they finalize the revisions, a draft is released to the public and open for comments. One of the key changes that most people agree upon, except for some of the lobbyists, is that sustainability should be added to the guidelines. Eating local food is better for our bodies and for the planet.

My students and I have been keeping an eye on the updates, as I find it’s a great way to get them familiar with food guidelines while learning about food politics in the process.

But while looking through the proposed guidelines, the one thing that was perplexing to my students was how extremely long they are. While they might be useful for governmental organizations, to the average middle-school student, they just add more confusion. As one of my 7thgraders put it, “Why are there so many numbers? Are all other countries like that?”

Hungary's Food House. | FAO.orgWhile I didn’t think so, I honestly wasn’t sure. I knew that in 2014 Brazil released new food-based guidelines that contained no numbers at all and were written in a way that could easily be understood. As I was digging around to find those, we stumbled across a web page from the U.N. with dietary guidelines from all around the world.

As we clicked on a few countries, we were intrigued by what we found. Not every country has a plate for their visual. China has a pagoda, the Bahamas has a goat-skin drum, and Hungary just uses a simple-looking house. And the differences didn’t stop there. In Thailand, they recommend 3-5 servings of fruit a day, since it’s so abundant, and some countries — like Brazil — make no serving recommendations whatsoever, but include suggestions like “learn how to cook” and “be wary of food advertising.”

In class, we discussed how different cultures have different diets and I showed them this fun, little clip of breakfasts from around the world.

After that, the students were excited to learn more, so my subject partner and I decided to create a project out of it. We would have the kids dig around and research guidelines from different countries and compile the best ones to create a set of their own for our school.

Click here for the research questions we used. While they were created for our 7th grade classes, they can easily be adapted for any grade level.

After the class agreed on a simple set of 6-8 guidelines, they partnered up and were assigned a specific guideline or nutrient to research and present to the class. They made visuals to go along with their presentations, but if you don’t have time to do a full project, just have some fun digging around and seeing what’s happening in other parts of the world.

Though this was the first time we’ve tried this in our nutrition unit, we’ll definitely do it again. I was pleased by how much my students were able to learn… without all of those numbers tripping them up.

To learn more about the MyPlate method, check out the "Make Over My Meal!" story from the May 2015 issue of Choices.