Out with the Pyramid, In with the Plate

MyPlate (small-myplate.jpg)

The US government has scrapped the much-maligned food pyramid icon and replaced it with a fruit- and vegetable-rich plate, seeking a simpler way to show Americans how to eat right. While it’s a major improvement, the new icon still falls short on giving people the nutrition advice they need to choose the healthiest diets.

The new logo, dubbed MyPlate, shows a circle divided into four brightly-colored wedges. Vegetables and fruits take up half the plate. Proteins and grains each get one quarter of the plate. Just off to the side is a smaller blue circle for dairy products, looking a bit like a glass of milk or a cup of yogurt. A fork and placemat complete the place setting.

“It’s simple enough for children to understand,” said First Lady Michelle Obama at the announcement in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 2011, promising that her Let’s Move! child obesity prevention initiative will be part of a coordinated campaign to promote MyPlate. “Kids can learn how to use this tool now and they can use it for the rest of their lives.”

Read more about the problems with MyPyramid and the Food Guide Pyramid

MyPlate was designed to be a less-cluttered alternative to MyPyramid, the vertically-striped healthy eating logo that debuted with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—and that has been attacked ever since for being vague and confusing. Nutritionists at the Harvard School of Public Health and elsewhere have also criticized MyPyramid and, even more so, its earlier iteration, the Food Guide Pyramid, for being based on out-of-date science—and for being too heavily-influenced by the meat and dairy industries. 

Visually, the plate represents an improvement over the previous nutrition icons, says Dr. Walter Willett, Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, and chair of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. And, like the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it moves Americans towards a more plant-based diet. (1) The president of the United Fresh Produce association even joined in on today’s announcement, highlighting the importance of the “make half your plate fruits and vegetables” message.

Read why the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans represent progress, not perfection

Read more about the research on whole grains and health

Read more about the research on calcium, milk and health

But there are still some fundamental differences between the government’s nutrition advice and the latest science on healthy eating—and MyPlate, as a shorthand version of the government’s nutrition advice, in some ways falls short. MyPlate does not show that whole grains are a better choice than refined grains, for example, or that beans, fish, and chicken are healthier choices than red meat. Healthy fats—key to heart health and to lowering the risk of diabetes—do not appear at all on the plate. Yet dairy is given a prominent place at the table, despite evidence that high intakes of dairy products do not reduce the risk of osteoporosis and may increase the risk of some chronic diseases. Perhaps the greatest problem is that MyPlate is silent on the large portion of the US diet that’s junk: sugary drinks, sweets, salty processed foods, refined grains, and the like.

Download a copy of the Healthy Eating Pyramid

In contrast, the Healthy Eating Pyramid from the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health puts whole grains, vegetables and fruits, and healthy fats in the base. Red meat, butter, soda, sweets, refined grains, and salt are in the used-sparingly tip. Dairy or supplements of vitamin D and calcium are recommended just one to two times a day, not at every meal.

“Clearly MyPlate will be better than MyPyramid, but the most important issues are in the details that are not captured by the icon,” Willett said. “What type of grain? What sources of proteins? What fats are used to prepare the vegetables and the grains?”

The lack of such details on the MyPlate logo itself is intentional, according to government sources. “It’s not designed to tell you specifically what to eat,” explained US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during the MyPlate launch press conference. “It is designed to tell you the proper proportions.”  The icon is meant to spur consumers to think about a “healthy plate” at each meal—and to go to the USDA’s new website, ChooseMyPlate.gov, for more information on how to build that healthy plate. The website, which offers quick tips, recipes, sample menus, and more, does encourage people to make at least half their grains whole grains, to limit sugary drinks and drink water instead, and to curb sodium, among other nutrition messages. But some of the shortfalls of the Dietary Guidelines themselves—among them, the overemphasis on dairy and the lack of clear messaging on limiting red meat—are repeated on the ChooseMyPlate.gov website.

Read more about how to choose healthy sources of protein.

One could also quibble with the proportions shown on MyPlate, and whether these are truly are optimal: There’s much evidence showing the benefits of eating lots of vegetables, and it’s good that the plate shows vegetables taking up a bit more room than fruit (since some fruits are especially high in carbohydrates, such as bananas, and a smaller portion is better). But grains are not essential for good health, and refined grains are detrimental to health—what’s most important is to make all of our grains whole grains. Likewise, there’s no optimum amount of protein to eat at each meal—the protein source is far more important for health.

The US is not the first country to adopt a plate-style food guidance graphic. The United Kingdom, for example, uses the “Eatwell Plate,” and Australia, Sweden, and other countries have also used plates to symbolize healthy eating. (2) Other health promotion and professional organizations have promoted filling half of the plate with fruits and vegetables. And the Eat Well & Keep Moving and Planet Health school-based nutrition and physical activity programs, created by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, also feature a “Balanced Plate for Health.”

Clearly, it will take more than a snazzy new icon to get Americans to change their eating habits and turn around the obesity epidemic. The latest nationally-representative surveys find that 80 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruit, 90 percent don’t eat enough vegetables, and 99 percent fall short on whole grains. (3) Perhaps even more important for a nation being engulfed by an epidemic of overweight and obesity, Americans need to cut back on or eliminate the major staples of the current US diet—refined grains, sugary snacks, soda, potatoes, cheese, butter, and red meat.

The government plans to use the web and social media to get the word out about healthy eating, officials say, including a forthcoming online tool that will allow consumers to customize and manage their food and activity choices. While MyPlate will be the “face” of the government’s consumer education campaign, the MyPyramid website will not go away, however, but will remain online for health professionals.

References

1. US Dept. of Agriculture, US Dept. of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010–Policy Document. Updated May 2, 2011. Accessed June 2, 2011.

2. Painter J, Rah JH, Lee YK. Comparison of international food guide pictorial representations. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002;102:483–489.

3. Krebs-Smith SM, Guenther PM, Subar AF, Kirkpatrick SI, Dodd KW. Americans do not meet federal dietary recommendations. J Nutr. 2010;140:1832–1838.

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