The USDA now offers a new, improved illustration of how to eat a healthy diet, dishing out guidance on a plate. The new advice will be worthwhile if Americans start eating more whole foods. Otherwise, we’ll continue to devolve into “the fattest, sickest, weakest people on the planet.”
In some ways, though, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new plate is less useful than its pyramid-shaped predecessors.
Dietary advice started to go wrong back when milk and items made from milk became a food group. Hey, the experts reasoned, let’s pretend animal fluid is an actual food category and make a diagram that shows how vital it is for people to eat and drink. A brilliant marketing plan, for sure. But the logic is skewed. I mean, honey is not its own food group, and you can have it whole, pasteurized, in cookies, sweeteners, etc. The entire idea of dairy (animal-milk products) being its own food group, let alone vital to our health, is preposterous. But I digress, and I promise an article on this topic in the coming weeks.
Today, we are celebrating the demise of not one, but two, food pyramids: the original one from 1992 and its rainbow-colored MyPyramid replacement of 2005. In 2011, they’ve been shelved in favor of a plate representing meal portion sizes, called MyPlate.
The symbol is actually very cool and fun to look at. Different colors represent different groups of food, with various pizza-slice portion sizes dividing the plate. And a glass of dairy (milk) is on the side.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, this graphic does its job well. We eat off plates, so being able to visualize a portion size in relation to other portion sizes is of great help. But does it really convey the essence of what makes a balanced and healthful meal? Consider what some of the more vocal experts have to say.
William Campbell Douglass, M.D., insists the new MyPlate is as bad as it predecessors. In fact, according to Douglass, the USDA’s “bad advice, carefully negotiated with help from Big Food’s big-money lobbyists, has turned us into the fattest, sickest, weakest people on the planet.”
“Clearly, MyPlate will be better than MyPyramid,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. “But the most important issues are in the details that are not captured by the icon. What type of grain? What sources of proteins? What fats are used to prepare the vegetables and the grains?”
Willett is correct in his assessment of MyPlate. Glancing at the icon itself does not provide enough useful information about preferred sources of each food group.
My own opinion echoes the sentiments of Campbell and Willett. However, since I don’t have a specific ax to grind (here), I would like to offer some middle ground.
To begin, where I felt the USDA pyramids were an abomination, MyPlate is a big and necessary step forward. Because it is modern and easy to look at and memorize, it is easy to visualize when dishing up your meals.
No, the icon does not specify types and sources of grains, proteins, fruits and veggies, so you have to figure that out for yourself. Yet if you visit myplate.gov, there are some really great lists of the preferred sources for each food group. And some good advice, like:
- “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”
- “Avoid oversized portions.”
- “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”
- “Make at least half your grains whole grains.”
- “Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals — and choose the foods with lower numbers.”
- “Drink water instead of sugary drinks.”
All terrific advice! Maybe the USDA could have included these bullet points on the icon in a text box below the plate in a text box. Wait a minute… what was that? Yes, it said to “drink water.” Bingo!
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