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My Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems

Since last week, the arrival of the United States Department of Agriculture’s new “food icon” (aka “My Plate” or “the new food pyramid”) has been the hot topic in nutrition and public health circles.  Alas, at 10:45 AM EST today, the much-speculated-about illustration was finally revealed.

There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and “relatable” interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid.  There is no notion of confusing “servings” (leave it to the USDA to make a serving of grains equivalent to one third of a regular-sized bagel), and — finally! — grains no longer have the honor of “most encouraged food group” (they are now second to “vegetables”).  While many of my colleagues have expressed enthusiasm with, and acceptance of, this new plate illustration, my point of view is nowhere near as enthusiastic, for several reasons.

To most health professionals, this plate is far from new.  Anyone who has counseled or worked with patients with Type 2 diabetes is familiar with “My Plate Planner”, which while not identical, is very similar to My Plate.

My first order of business — that proverbial dairy group on the side of My Plate; science lobbying at its finest.  Since the plate differentiates between fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, it begs the question — why aren’t dairy products included with the “protein” group?  After all, a serving of dairy has as much protein as a serving of meat, chicken, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds.

The fact that dairy has calcium is irrelevant; some green vegetables offer just as much calcium as milk — and in a more absorbable form — yet they are contained within the vegetable group.  If the USDA were truly concerned with calcium intake (rather than returning the financial favor to the dairy industry), it would make a “calcium-rich food” group and include a wide variety of calcium-rich foods with equal prominence (milk, cheese, and yogurt along with kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and fortified dairy alternatives).

The official party line is that this new plate will help individuals adopt healthier behaviors.  How, exactly?  Unless the government plans on matching crop subsidies to the recommendations laid out on My Plate (i.e.: subsidize fruits and vegetables, rather than wheat corn and soy to make nutritionally inferior byproducts), I don’t see how My Plate is supposed to help anyone develop better eating habits.

I don’t believe Americans are lacking knowledge or awareness that fruits and vegetables are healthy; the problem is that fruits and vegetables compete with artificially priced junk food in the marketplace.  Lucky Charms and Trix are so cheap because they are made with crop subsidies; meat is cheap because cows are fed government-subsidized crops, and so on and so forth.  Is My Plate suddenly going to make a pound of vegetables cost less, and a box of Lucky Charms cost more?  Will My Plate turn food deserts into areas where residents can have access to healthy foods?  No.

Our government essentially subsidizes soda, but in the messages that accompany this “plate”, tells its citizens to “drink water instead of sugary drinks.”  Interesting, too, how “the plate” doesn’t want us to drink sugary drinks, yet the USDA has no problem with the fact that millions of children drink chocolate milk at schools on a daily basis.  Do as I say, not as I do.

As long as people live in environments that are not conducive to making healthy decisions, can we really expect an illustration of a plate to achieve anything?  In all fairness, First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned the importance of increasing access and availability of fruits and vegetables at this morning’s press conference, and Monsanto-friendly Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack alluded to rebuilding rural economies.  While certainly encouraging to have those issues be part of public discourse, they need to be a priority — certainly before rolling out a new illustration that doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, pardon the pun.  It’s also difficult to not dismiss those statements as empty words considering that no specific actions or policies to achieve those goals was mentioned.

Of course, My Plate does not exist in a vacuum.  As public health lawyer Michele Simon pointed out in her critique of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans this past February, food companies’ marketing budgets squash those of federal nutrition campaigns.  Earlier this morning, she and I had a very similar — and frightening — thought: how long until the new USDA plate illustration shows up on boxes of Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, and nacho cheese chips?  Don’t forget — Big Food loves nothing more than to appropriate “official” nutrition advice and twist it as they desire.

My Plate also highlights some recommendations from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including:

  • Avoid oversized portions” (it would help if oversized portions weren’t a norm at restaurants; yet another issue that comes back to crop subsidies.  We can offer huge portions of certain foods because they are artificially cheap.)
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk” (there’s the milk lobbying again!  This statement assumes everyone drinks, or should drink, milk.  What if you’re lactose intolerant?  What if you’e vegan?  What if you simply do not like the taste of milk?  Besides, saturated fat consumption has remained steady for the past three decades.)
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose the foods with lower numbers.” (Fair enough, but why isn’t a similar statement made about sweeteners, which are ubiquitous in our food supply and which have been linked to increased risk of heart disease when consumed in the large amounts they are by the average American?  Why not also recommend that people read ingredient lists and avoid things with artificial dyes artificial sweeteners?).

Much like the old pyramid, this plate does absolutely nothing towards differentiating between healthier and unhealthier fats.  In fact, fats aren’t even mentioned.  The plate needs a “healthy fats” slice, that would promote the consumption of monounsaturated fats (almonds, avocado, olives) and omega-3 fatty acids.  Or, at the very least, a recommendation to “obtain most of your fats from foods, not added oils”.

The plate is the nutritional equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather than fix the issues at hand with policies that promote health, the USDA chooses to distract us with colorful pictures and press releases that attempt to pass of tinsel as gold.

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34 Comments

  1. C Ohlinger MS, RD said on June 2nd, 2011

    Good post. I have a couple of issues with the MyPlate icon.
    1. No mention of what size the plate should be.
    2. Protein is not a food group! I have no idea why this can’t be conceptualized as food rather than a nutrient–very confusing for people.
    3. How many people eat only foods that can be neatly separated into the space on th plate?
    4. Still insufficient guidance on added sugars and fats.

  2. Brandon said on June 2nd, 2011

    Isn’t the problem with the pyramid that you they are trying to label foods, but not all foods can be easily labeled? Corn could be a grain or a vegetable. Beans are a vegetable but also a protein. There are too many exceptions, foods fitting into multiple groups. Like tomatoes, fruits in the veggies group. Made the pyramid annoying. Taking certain veggies out of the veggies group to make a calcium rich foods group makes that problem worse. Where does calcium rich cabbage go on the plate? In the veggie section or the dairy/calcium rich section? (If I were trying to follow the plate as pictured)

    I think the issue is that, now in 2011, for many many people (in the US), milk/cheese/yogurt is a staple or near staple. Taking it out would make it seem like people can’t eat it, and those many many people would not be happy about that. Too food police like. Dairy does not have as much protein as meat. That point is a stretch. But it does have as much protein as nuts, beans, and eggs, so maybe not too much of a stretch. But then again whole grains can have as much protein as nuts beans and eggs, so maybe it is a stretch. And how many almost exclusively dairy based entress are there? Its more of a topping.

    I completely agree that if crop susidies don’t change, then this plate is useless. The head speaker was assured “there’d be enough fruits and veggies to meet the threshold”, but hopefully by fruits and veggies they didn’t mean corn and bananas.

    In the meeting the head speaker pointed out “you can still eat cookies” HOWEVER everyone always fails to mention that if you have that kind of dessert it counts a grain. So cookies go in the grains section of the plate. If you wanted to follow the plate, you couldn’t have rice/pasta/bread/etc and then cookies. Its one or the other.

    Anyway, I still like the plate better than the pyramid. I don’t see it getting much better while trying to make everyone happy. While grains and dairy aren’t exactly required for optimal health, they don’t necessarily hurt (unless you have food allergies).

  3. Brandon said on June 2nd, 2011

    **The 2nd paragraph was me saying that I don’t think that dairy could go in the protein section or get eliminated as a group**

  4. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Brandon,

    A few thoughts on your comments:

    1) Dairy is a staple? Well, so is soda. Should soda also be on My Plate?
    2) Calcium-rich kale can go in both groups. If we are going to have a calcium-rich section that will include milk (which really belongs with proteins), why not have kale be BOTH in ‘calcium-rich’ and ‘vegetables’)? The whole notion of a dairy group is the end result of industry lobbying. After all, cheese counts as both a protein and “dairy”, does it not?
    3) Taking out dairy doesn’t mean people can’t eat it — it would be part of the “protein” group. Beans, nuts, chicken, broccoli, and avocados are not directly pointed out on the plate, but that does not mean the idea is to avoid those foods.
    4) Dairy has as much protein as meat when you compare the serving sizes. 1 cup of milk = as much protein as 1 egg = as much protein as 1 ounce of meat.
    5) Dairy is a topping? Go to a restaurant and order a dish that includes cheese. It is usually present in mounds and globs, not few shreds here and there.

  5. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    All very good point, C.

    The protein issue is problematic. Most people don’t realize they get protein when they eat whole grains and vegetables. That said, I do prefer the “protein”moniker to the previous “meat and meat alternatives”.

  6. tmana said on June 2nd, 2011

    Agree with the question of “plate size”: we should be replacing 11.5″ standard US dinner plates with 8″ standard luncheon plates, or at least 9″ standard European dinner plates.

    As a person with Type 2 diabetes who was taught an early version of the “exchange” diet, I conceptualize dairy two ways: with carbs (milk, yogurt), it replaces starch (even though the carbohydrate is in the form of sugar) plus protein; without carbs (cheese), it replaces fat plus protein. Any carbs in “protein” (beans and legumes, milk, yogurt, certain cheeses) replaces starch; all fats in “protein” replace discretionary fats. Fruits can be replaced with vegetables if desired.

    Unfortunately, this is a bit too complex for our “grab ‘n’ go” society.

    But to harp on the familiar strings, the big issues are poverty and artificial subsidies: fruits and vegetables are neither as inexpensive or as satiating to most people as the much-cheaper (and more hand and dashboard-diner -friendly) fatty meat-and-starch concoctions at the drive-through.

  7. Seth said on June 2nd, 2011

    I read your post, and followed you and @appetite4profit tweeting the press conference, and all I could think to myself was, Wow, I’m on the same side but they’re so incredibly cynical and negative. Reading the critiques, I get visuals of endless of finger-wagging. But it’s not the criticism per se that struck me; it’s that it seemed so out of proportion with the content of today’s announcement, which seems to be a net positive. I don’t think any guideline will be perfect, and MyPlate isn’t a homerun, but it’s a step forward in so many ways. To wit—
    - Plants dominate!
    - The visual is so much clearer than the rainbow-striped pyramid.
    - Dessert is nowhere in sight. Must be optional!
    - An unequivocal ‘eat less’ message. That never happens! The word ‘more’ is absent.
    - Water instead of sugary drinks? Pinch me, please.

    This has /got/ to be a net gain over MyPyramid. But you seem to be trying so hard to find fault with every aspect of the new guidelines, sometimes in nitpicky ways… Who cares if a thing is not new and is based on another plate concept, as long as it works? You decry food industry lobbying, but where was Big Soda and the sugar refiners when the part about avoiding sugary drinks was inserted? If meatpackers had their way, forget the Trivial Pursuit wedges—there would be a silhouette of a steak taking up most of the plate. Why doesn’t MyPlate do more of the things you want? Because it’s meant to be an extremely basic, top-line guide for people, and the more it’s asked to do the more complicated it gets. (Simplicity is our friend because the food industry wins when nutrition messages get complicated.) And then you point out that MyPlate’s message doesn’t jibe with other actions from our government, but for goodness sake, Andy, that’s not MyPlate’s fault! It just got born. Why not say what it’s doing right and work backwards to bring those many other government actions into line with what MyPlate does well?

    Honestly, when you look at it from another perspective, it’s hard to believe that some of the good stuff made it into this version of the guide. Rather than trying to tear it all down, why not work on holding the line when industry tries to take away the gains made here?

  8. Brandon said on June 2nd, 2011

    #3 Ok, but it is a little different, as dairy is a group of foods from a unique source and chicken and broccoli are single foods. (Obv the government is not going to pick on single foods.) Like I said, some grains like flax have as much protein as dairy or egg so if we were to make your proposed changes shouldn’t some grains go in the protein group? It would get out of control.

    With #2, I’m not against a calcium rich foods section (they separated the protein nutrient after all), I just think it would further confuse the average consumer more. It would be hard to replicate the plate because which piece of the pie would [kale] go in since some food has to occupy each piece of the pie. Using the plate as a guide is already hard enough, like what C Ohlinger is getting at with her 3rd point, there is a lot of combination foods.

    I agree with you though, why is calcium a nutrient that needed to be singled out? Why not Vitamin E or Zinc. A lot of people don’t get enough of those nutrients, and you don’t even need that much. It is unfortunate that, through lobbying etc, it has been well established since the start that “dairy is a food group”.

  9. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Seth,

    I do not consider myself cynical or negative, simply a realist. Our food system is broken, and rather than attempt to fix and rebuild structures, we’re ooh-ing and aah-ing over how awesome that new painted wall looks — it’s the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. I have acknowledged that My Plate is more “relatable” than the pyramid, and that vegetables are given more prominence. However, we can not forget that we must fix the food system.

    Slapping on a new house of paint on, or mowing the lawn of, a dillapidated house that is unlivable does not solve the root problem. We can not expect change unless we show that what passes for “progress” is anything but. How else do you think the civil rights movement, or Stonewall, got started? People were fed up and said “NO MORE”.

    To answer your points:

    Plants also dominated in the other two food pyramids, so how is My Plate an improvement?
    The visual is clearer, yes — I stated this in my second paragraph
    Dessert is not in sight, sure… but aren’t most “kids’ cereals” desserts?
    “Eat less” was already in the Dietary Guidelines. Yes, “My Plate” restates it, but it is not unique to the plate. Also, the “eat less” message is not depicted in the illustration.
    Same with “water instead of sugary drinks” — not on the actual illustration

    And, again, it’s a moot point when schools serve chocolate milk every day.

    I am not blaming My Plate for anything, all I am saying is “forget this shiny new toy and keep demanding better policies from our government!”.

  10. Cameo said on June 2nd, 2011

    Great post. I think that (pay-offs/lobbying aside) what they are trying to do is make it as simple as possible- which is the problem – healthy eating is not something that can be divisible by categories of 5 or under. Eatinig healthy is a complex endeavor where there is no one size fits all approach. I agree that the “protein” group is problematic. I think you should write the guidelines, Andy!

  11. Chelsey @ Chew with Your Mouth Open said on June 2nd, 2011

    Andy,

    I really appreciate your views and candidness. We need people like you who adovcate for change. I agree that the new MyPlate design is a dissappointment. While a postive change in some lights, I think it is sorely missing the mark on so many topics. Having taught the previous MyPyramid to thousands of students it’s flaws stick out very clearly to me and I see those same flaws present again in the new design.

    Fantastic post!

  12. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Thank you, Chelsey. I know exactly what you mean about teaching MyPyramid at schools; it hits you, as you’re doing it, all the things you want to add and explain further because the pyramid doesn’t truly guide healthful eating.

  13. Janel said on June 2nd, 2011

    I’m with you. I wish we didn’t “need” to have these icons to direct our eating, since it’s usually health professionals who are the only ones who even acknowledge it! Seems as if this new icon just got a visual makeover, a shuffle of the chairs as you said. It will not fix what’s really the root of so many of our food system issues.

  14. Holly said on June 2nd, 2011

    I actually like the plate — half of your plate should be fruits and veg — that’s a clear message and it loads better than the carb-bottomed pyramid that was hard to mentally translate into a guide to eating.

    I totally agree about the dairy, though. When asked to comment on the government’s encouraging of dairy consumption on an exam (I’m working on an MS in nutrition on my way to becoming an RD) I suggested it would be better to encourage canned sardines and canned salmon with bones for calcium since they’re loaded with calcium and provide the benefit of omega-3s. I mean, it’s tongue-in-cheek but really it’s just as valid as milk.

    And of course now this has become a big challenge for me. A couple of weeks ago I swore off red meat and dairy due to a literature review for a class (look up Neu5Gc on google scholar), but since I’m an underweight female calcium is pretty important if I want to avoid osteoporosis. Now I’m scrounging around for non-dairy sources, almond milk, canned fish with bones, massive quantities of greens, and I guess I should start weight training to force my body to use the calcium it does get for bone-building. Good grief.

  15. Jill said on June 2nd, 2011

    I think your point regarding subsidization of corn and soy is valid — it /is/ cheaper to buy these processed foods. It’s also cheaper to buy a McDinner than to cook something in the home. However, it also becomes an issue of access. In my specific urban center, it can be as much as a 20 minute drive to a grocery store from certain neighborhoods — at that distance it is not feasible for people to travel to grocery stores, and instead must rely on mini-marts, none of which offer fresh produce.

    Overall, I heartily approve of the myplate design — it preaches BALANCE, something that has fallen out of vogue in the past few years. Sure, there are some improvements that could be made. To comment on earlier threads, I think the plate size should be listed as varied, depending on the person. As a taller female, I hope that I would be eating more than a shorter female, just as I would expect that a football lineman would eat more than I would eat. All in all, a definite step in the right direction.

  16. Lisa Rainer said on June 3rd, 2011

    You wrote so much of what I was thinking when I first saw the “plate.” You could put a fast food hamburger (w/ lettuce/tomato), fries and a milkshake on this plate and it would fit each category.
    I am so inspired to design a new plate.

  17. Jennifer Moiles said on June 3rd, 2011

    Well said!

  18. Yuuki said on June 4th, 2011

    I personally am not quite sure if government should be in the position of making food recommendations to begin with. It’s a decent public policy question worth exploring, particularly since every single new iteration of the food [insert geometric shape here] seems to leave consumers even more befuddled. We’ve taken what should be relatively simple and turned it into a Frankenstein. By the time the next revision rolls around in 2020, consumers will have finally gotten used to the new model and what will we do? Change it on them. Again. Critics of the government’s focus on “low fat” a generation ago point out that the net effect of this set of recommendations was to drive consumption of carbs largely in the form of refined CHO and sugar, which only made problems worse.

    That aside: I don’t feel that your criticisms of the plate model are necessarily justified. Yes, there are acceptable alternatives to milk, but for most milk and dairy are the major source of dietary calcium. I agree that the recommendations should contain some mention of alternate sources, but it seems unreasonable to say that the inclusion of a “dairy” group is objectionable because of vegans or lactose intolerant individuals.

    As I understand it, the plate is intended to be: simple, promote certain dietary objectives (e.g. higher Ca intake), and encompass as wide a swath of the population as possible. The inclusion of a dairy group is a compromise that neatly achieves all of these goals. Vegans and the lactose intolerant (myself included) do fall by the wayside, but that’s the cost of simplicity. By trying to encompass too many modalities of eating, you compromise the first principle: simplicity. If vegans and the lactose intolerant were to be represented in the model, why not fruitarians and raw foodists? Atkins and keto enthusiasts? Paleo dieters? Veganism may be popular, but most Americans still eat dairy in some form (even lactose intolerance comes in degrees). As for the idea of a “healthy fats” slice, while a good idea in theory, in practice I suspect it would likely simply add to the cacophony and confusion. Once again, if your central aim is simplicity and clarity, the addition of unfamiliar nomenclature is unproductive.

    You do make an excellent point, however, that the government’s approach to public health promotion is a bit of a hydra talking at a hundred separate frequencies. It promotes public health good nutrition, while at the same time subsidizing those same products that do the absolute reverse and supplying food banks with products that are devoid of any redeeming nutritional value. A unified public message to resolving public health crises is clearly needed, and you’re right – the “plate” does very little to change the status quo.

  19. Andy Bellatti said on June 4th, 2011

    Yuuki,

    Thanks for adding to the discussion. Great point about the constant shuffle of guidelines and “icons” on the general population, and thereby giving credence to the myth that “those damn nutritionists always change their minds” (even though “eat plenty of fruits and vegetables” has been the main message for decades).

    My issue with dairy isn’t so much that it doesn’t apply to vegans and those who are lactose intolerant, but rather that it is nothing more than a returned favor to the dairy industry and its deep pockets. If the dietary objective is to promote a higher calcium intake, why not encourage “calcium-rich foods”, which include dairy as well as the alternatives? Making a whole group called “dairy” gives credence to yet another myth — that without milk in your diet, your bones will become brittle. I am not expecting My Plate to talk about how bone health goes beyond calcium and also involves vitamin K and manganese, but I do expect it to provide accurate information. In my eyes, having a “dairy” group to really mean “calcium-rich foods” is the equivalent of having a “meat” group (not even “meat and meat alternatives” but just “meat”) because “who really eats lentils anyway?” It’s disingenuous and, in my eyes, gives too much power to specific industries.

    So, my “dairy gripe” comes more from that standpoint than “My Plate should apply to all dietary needs”.

  20. Kris said on June 6th, 2011

    Hi Andy–

    Thanks for the thoughtful and useful article. I discovered it when digging around to write one of my own on the new ‘My Plate.’ Your points about dairy not deserving its own group and the competition that veggies have every day in the grocery store aisles are especially eye-opening…now, just getting the message out! Thanks again…

    Kris
    http://americansoulfood.wordpress.com

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