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USDA Replaces Food Pyramid with MyPlate Icon

The Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alongside First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, introduced the new MyPlate food icon this week. The icon is designed to be a simple, visual reminder for Americans to make healthier choices at mealtime.

The icon was designed to replace the often-criticized MyPyramid food pyramid, launched in 2005. The new image not only provides consumers with a visual framework for building healthy meals but serves as a reminder of the available resources on the MyPlate companion website Choose My Plate.

The easy-to-recognize placemat setting features fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy as the primary food groups. Additional information relating to each category can be found on the website.

“With so many food options available to consumers, it is often difficult to determine the best foods to put on our plates when building a healthy meal,” said Secretary Vilsack. “MyPlate is an uncomplicated symbol to help remind people to think about their food choices in order to lead healthier lifestyles. This effort is about more than just giving information; it is a matter of making people understand there are options and practical ways to apply them to their daily lives.”

The information available on the website covers a broad range of topics for consumers, educators and health professionals. Among the resources is the “10 Tips Series”, a set of consumer-friendly documents that provide simple strategies for making healthier choices. The series includes such topics as how to incorporate each of the food groups into your daily diet, tips for cutting back on sugar and sodium, and how-to’s for getting children to eat their veggies.

On the Centers for Disease Control’s Fruit & Veggies Matter More site, an interactive tool is available where you can analyze your plate. Just drag food items over to your plate and you will get a nutritional analysis of your selections. This tool helps Americans create healthier meals and add a variety of fruits and vegetables to your menu.

Overall, the website serves to reinforce the key message of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

Balance Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium (salt) in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

The First Lady and Secretary Vilsack noted that the unveiling of the new MyPlate icon and website was just the initial phase of the campaign. In the fall, the USDA plans to launch an online tool to personalize, track and manage diet and physical activity.

Additionally, a multi-year campaign calendar will focus on one call to action at a time, starting with “Make Half Your Plate Fruits and Vegetables.”

The entire program will be supported by public and private partners, as well as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. Details of the campaign calendar were not outlined.

The Bottom Line

In a society that is bombarded on a daily basis with conflicting messages about health and nutrition, simplicity is key. Compared to the old food pyramid, the USDA has done a great job of creating a clear, consistent message using visual cues that are easy to understand.

While the plate icon is a step in the right direction, it is nothing new in nutrition circles. My Plate Planner is a graphic that has been used by nutritionists to help patients with Type 2 diabetes make good food choices.

Probably the biggest criticism is that it doesn’t make sense to have the government agency that is tasked to provide nutrition advice to the public at the same time heavily subsidize the dairy, meat and grain industries. It’s a conflict of interest. Less than 1% of subsidies are earmarked for fruits & vegetables whereas 63% are used toward meat and dairy.

Although some of the nutrition messages may be influenced by government funding and are perhaps a bit flawed, the USDA should be commended for highlighting the important need to consume fewer calories, less salt and less sugar-laden drinks and increase fruit and vegetable intake.

Another criticism of MyPlate is that the icon doesn’t give an indication of plate size. The average dinner plate has increased from 8” to 14” and reducing the size would go a long way toward helping Americans achieve portion control.

In terms of sections of the plate, there is no mention of fats. Adding a healthy fats slice would be helpful.

Finally, unlike MyPyramid, the new plate does not mention physical exercise. That could be a blessing or a curse. Given that time spent doing leisure time activity has not changed dramatically over the past 20 years, researchers point to calorie surplus as the cause of the obesity epidemic.

At this point, most Americans recognize that they need to eat more fruits and vegetables. The reason that they don’t is that they get bombarded with messages from fast food companies. Importantly, crappy food is cheap and fresh produce is expensive. Unless the government starts subsidizing fruit and vegetable production, I’m not sure we will see a major shift in how consumers eat.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the call-to-action messages are received by the general public, as well as our school systems, as they are introduced in the coming years. Be on the lookout for packaged food companies that spin the MyPlate graphic on packaging to make their products appear healthier.

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