Questions and Answers: Healthy Eating Plate
- How is the Healthy Eating Plate different from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) MyPlate?
- What is the central message of the Healthy Eating Plate?
- How do the sections of the Healthy Eating Plate break down to percentages of calories or numbers of servings per day from each food group?
- Are the relative sizes of the Healthy Eating Plate sections based on calories or volume?
- Why is the fruit section smaller than the other sections of the Healthy Eating Plate? Is fruit worse for you than healthy protein or whole grains?
- Between vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, carbohydrates account for about three-quarters of the Healthy Eating Plate. Isn’t this a lot?
- You say to drink tea and coffee, but limit fruit juice. Does this mean caffeine is not a problem for children, but juice is?
- What about alcohol? Isn’t alcohol supposed to be good for you in small amounts?
- Will the Healthy Eating Pyramid be going away?
- Are there any other reasons why consumers should use the Healthy Eating Plate?
Two words: Diet quality. The Healthy Eating Plate points consumers to the healthiest choices in the major food groups. MyPlate, in contrast, fails to give people some of the basic nutrition advice they need to choose a healthy diet.
A hamburger or hot dog on a white bread bun with French fries and a milk shake could be part of a MyPlate meal—even though high red and processed meat intakes increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and high intakes of refined grains and potatoes make it hard to control weight. (1–4) The Healthy Eating Plate helps consumers make the healthiest choices—whole grains, a colorful variety of vegetables, and a healthy selection of proteins from fish, poultry, nuts, or beans.
The Healthy Eating Plate was created by experts at Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School. It is based exclusively on the best available science and was not subjected to political and commercial pressures from food industry lobbyists.
MyPlate encourages consumers to make dairy products a regular part of their meals. Yet research has shown little benefit, and considerable potential for harm, of such high dairy intakes. Moderate consumption of milk or other dairy products—one to two servings a day—is fine, and likely has some benefits for children. But it’s not essential for adults, for a host of reasons. That’s why the Healthy Eating Plate recommends limiting milk and dairy products to one to two servings per day, and drinking water with meals instead. (Read more details about the research on calcium, milk, and health on The Nutrition Source.)
These diet quality differences matter: Following an eating pattern similar to the Healthy Eating Plate lowers the risk of developing heart disease or dying from heart disease or other chronic diseases. (5–7) You won’t get the same disease prevention benefits from eating a hamburger, fries, and a milk shake.
See a table that compares Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate to USDA’s MyPlate.
The Healthy Eating Plate shows consumers a generally healthy way to assemble a meal:
- get plenty of produce
- choose whole grains
- choose healthy sources of protein
- use healthy oils
- drink water or other beverages that don’t contain sugar.
It also suggests limiting consumption of refined grains, potatoes, sweets, sugary beverages, red meat, and processed meats, and go easy on milk and juice.
How do the sections of the Healthy Eating Plate break down to percentages of calories or numbers of servings per day from each food group?
The Healthy Eating Plate does not define a certain number of calories or servings per day each day from each food group, since individuals’ calorie and nutrient needs vary based on age, gender, body size, and level of activity. Food preferences also shape a person’s Healthy Eating Plate.
The relative sizes of the sections suggest approximate relative proportions of each of the food groups to include on a healthy plate. They are not based on specific calorie amounts, and they are not meant to prescribe a certain number of calories or servings per day, since these numbers vary from person to person (see previous question). The aim of the Healthy Eating Plate is to illustrate one way to put together a healthy meal that fits within the guidelines of the Healthy Eating Pyramid. Read more about the Healthy Eating Pyramid.
Why is the fruit section smaller than the other sections of the Healthy Eating Plate? Is fruit worse for you than healthy protein or whole grains?
The fruit section is smaller than the vegetables section because it is possible to overdo it on some fruits, such as bananas, that are high in starch or sugar. Both fruits and vegetables are nutritionally valuable, and it’s no secret that most Americans don’t eat enough. The latest state-by-state survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 68 percent of adults eat fruit fewer than two times a day, and 74 percent of adults eat vegetables fewer than three times a day. (8) So following the Healthy Eating Plate’s guidelines at every meal would actually represent an increase in fruit and vegetable intake for most Americans.
Between vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, carbohydrates account for about three-quarters of the Healthy Eating Plate. Isn’t this a lot?
With all the hype around low-carb diets, “net carbs,” and the like, there’s an abundance of confusion about carbohydrates. Let’s cut through some of that confusion:
- The main message of the Healthy Eating Plate is around diet quality.
- The amount of carbohydrate in the diet, high or low, is not what matters most for health. What really matters is the type of carbohydrate in the diet, since some sources of carbohydrate are healthier than others. The Healthy Eating Plate illustrates the importance of healthy carbohydrates from vegetables (other than potatoes), fruits, whole grains, and (in the healthy protein section) beans. Carbohydrates from these foods, in general, have a gentler effect on blood sugar than carbohydrates from refined grains, potatoes, and sugary drinks. They are also naturally rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (chemicals that are only found in plants). That’s why we include them in abundance on the Healthy Eating Plate.
- Vegetables make up the biggest portion of the Healthy Eating Plate, and the carbohydrate content of many vegetables is fairly low; this is especially true on the Healthy Eating Plate, since potatoes or French fries (which are very high in carbohydrate) do not count as vegetables.
- The Healthy Eating Plate also advises consumers to avoid sugary beverages, a major source of carbohydrate in the American diet.
- The Healthy Eating Plate has a glass bottle of oil next to it, designed to encourage consumers to use healthy oils in cooking, on salad, and at the table. It does not set a maximum on the percentage of calories people should get each day from healthy sources of fat. So really, the Healthy Eating Plate conveys just the opposite of the high-carb, low-fat/limited-fat message that the USDA gave consumers for decades.
In sum, the Healthy Eating Plate steers people toward consuming less carbohydrates than one might find in a typical American diet, and it helps them make the healthiest carbohydrate choices. Read more about healthy carbohydrates on The Nutrition Source.
You say to drink tea and coffee, but limit fruit juice. Does this mean caffeine is not a problem for children, but juice is?
The plate shows a glass of water; the explanatory text says to drink water, tea, or coffee, which indicates that tea and coffee (with little or no sugar) are alternatives to water. Parents can be the judge of whether and when to allow their children to drink caffeinated tea or coffee. Many parents may not realize this, but the colas and energy drinks that many children and adolescents already consume in large quantities do contain caffeine, and are also loaded with sugar. Energy drinks can be especially high in caffeine (some bottles may have as much caffeine as 14 cans of a caffeine-containing soda). (9) The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a recent clinical report on energy drinks and sports drinks, states that “caffeine and other stimulant substances contained in energy drinks have no place in the diet of children and adolescents.” (9) It also notes that “dietary intake [of caffeine] should be discouraged for all children,” and that soft drinks are the largest source of caffeine in children’s diets. (9)
Ounce per ounce, juice contains as much sugar and as many calories as a sugary soda, and like sugary sodas, juice can be a cause of tooth decay. That’s why we recommend limiting juice. The Healthy Eating Plate recommendations on juice are consistent with those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that children consume no more than 4 to 8 ounces of juice per day. Read more about healthy drinks on The Nutrition Source.
As illustrated on the Healthy Eating Pyramid, alcohol in moderation is beneficial, but it’s not for everyone. That’s why it is not included on the Healthy Eating Plate. You can read more about alcohol at The Nutrition Source.
No, the Healthy Eating Pyramid is not going away. Generations of Americans are accustomed to the food pyramid concept so we feel it is important to show how the Healthy Eating Plate connects to the Healthy Eating Pyramid. In fact, the Healthy Eating Pyramid and the Healthy Eating Plate complement each other. Both emphasize foods that promote good health. And both encourage people to limit or avoid foods and drinks that are harmful, or that provide lots of calories but have little nutritional value.
Consumers can think of the Healthy Eating Pyramid as a grocery list: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy oils, and healthy proteins like nuts, beans, fish, and chicken should make it into the shopping cart every week, along with a little yogurt or milk if desired. Skip the soda and snack food aisle, the deli counter, and the steaks and chops at the butcher counter. The Healthy Eating Pyramid also addresses other aspects of a healthy lifestyle—exercise, weight control, vitamin D and multivitamin supplements, and moderation in alcohol for people who drink—so it’s a useful tool for health professionals and health educators.
Think of the Healthy Eating Plate as a guide to planning a healthy, balanced meal and serving it on a dinner plate—or packing it in a lunch box. Put a copy on the refrigerator at home or at work, to give yourself a visual guide to portioning out a healthy plate, and to remind you to pump up the produce.
The USDA reports that it conducted formative research with consumers during the development of MyPlate, and “throughout the formative research process, two seemingly opposing needs emerged. These were simplifying nutrition messaging and providing more information.” (10) The formative research report highlights deficiencies in MyPlate, among them, that consumers thought the plate icon “did not convey what choices are best within each food group.”
Nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health worked with editors at Harvard Health Publications to create the Healthy Eating Plate to address these deficiencies. It provides important health information in a format that is both simple and iconic while also providing enough detail and direction to help people make the best eating choices.
1. Bernstein AM, Sun Q, Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Willett WC. Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation. 2010;122:876–83.
2. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011. Aug 10. [Epub ahead of print]
3. World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. Continuous Update Project Report Summary. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Colorectal Cancer. 2011.
4. Mozaffarian D, Hao T, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Changes in diet and lifestyle and long-term weight gain in women and men. N Engl J Med. 2011;364:2392–404.
5. McCullough ML, Feskanich D, Stampfer MJ, et al. Diet quality and major chronic disease risk in men and women: moving toward improved dietary guidance. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76:1261–71.
6. Akbaraly TN, Ferrie JE, Berr C, et al. Alternative Healthy Eating Index and mortality over 18 y of follow-up: results from the Whitehall II cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94:247–53.
7. Belin RJ, Greenland P, Allison M, et al. Diet quality and the risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94:49–57.
8. State-specific trends in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults—United States, 2000-2009. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2010;59:1125–30.
9. Committee on Nutrition and the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Sports drinks and energy drinks for children and adolescents: are they appropriate? Pediatrics. 2011; 127:1182–1189.
10. US Department of Agriculture. Development of 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans consumer messages and new food icon: executive summary of formative research. 2011. Accessed September 7, 2011.
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