Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with First Lady Michelle Obama and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, unveiled the new icon replacing the food pyramid, which first debuted in 1992. These icons are designed to translate the complex Dietary Guidelines into a simple, “how-to” guide for following a healthier diet. The most recent pyramid, unveiled in 2005 as MyPyramid, was widely panned by health professionals as too complex and not user-friendly.
The new icon is called MyPlate, and is a simplified version of the recommendations laid out in the Dietary Guidelines. I applaud the USDA and Obama administration for choosing a straightforward design which applies more directly to the act of eating. But I am concerned that the icon has been oversimplified. That said, here are “MyThoughts” about MyPlate:
- The name: ChooseMyPlate. “Choose” implies empowerment, and that the responsibility for eating healthfully (and making behavior changes) ultimately resides with the individual. “My” is a carryover from MyPyramid, which were actually 12 individualized pyramids based on age, sex and activity level. The “my” is a nod toward one’s individual dietary needs: while the elements of every person’s plate would be the same, a toddler’s plate would look different from an adult male’s plate.
- It can apply both to a single meal as well as an overall diet, and just by a quick glance you get the main message of: make half of what you eat fruits and vegetables – slightly more veggies than fruits. I also like how exact measurements have been left off the icon…that the different food groups are really more or less relative to one another.
- The “Milk” group is back to being categorized as “Dairy,” which is a little more accurate about the foods you’d find in the group, such as yogurt and cheese. Calcium-fortified soymilk is also in this group, and while technically not a dairy product it is often a dairy substitute.
- The plate design makes it easier to visualize what to put on your plate at a meal. Many RDs, myself included, use a plate technique with clients to educate about portion and food groups. HOWEVER, many people are still eating meals on the go – in the car, in a carry-out bag or in some other convenient form – such as a sandwich. Using a plate approach still requires some imagination for translating the actual food one is eating into these categories.
- While there was a lot of discussion about physical activity no longer represented on the icon, I’m OK with that. This is meant to be a representation of how people should eat – other behaviors such as physical activity and practicing food safety principles can be a separate conversation.
- Dairy appears to be an afterthought, and not a main component in one’s diet. Also, its shape is different from the others, making it difficult to envision how much dairy relative to other food groups a person should eat.
- “Protein” is ambiguous to the average American. Why they chose to do away with the more descriptive “Meat and Beans” group is beyond me. Protein is a macronutrient, whereas fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy are all foods. I’m glad they didn’t rename the grains group “Carbohydrates”!
- Fats have been excluded. Will this icon send an inadvertent message that fats don’t belong in our diets? The fat-free craze of the 1980s was a diet disaster and should not be repeated. People are still learning that certain fats do deserve a place in our diets, such as oils, seeds and nuts.
- Non-plateable foods such as soups, cereals and mixed dishes will be hard to translate into the new plate model. Consumers will need to “deconstruct” their foods to see how it fits into their daily needs.
- The plate represents an ideal – as it should – but it excludes other foods people eat, including items addressed in the dietary guidelines such as foods with added sugar and alcohol. Granted, MyPyramid also didn’t address these foods in the icon, either. While such foods/drinks should be limited and need not be a part of a person’s everyday diet, we cannot simply ignore these foods and pretend they don’t exist, particularly if we’re going with an icon we hope people will apply to their everyday dinner plates.
In general, I think the new icon is a good starting point to help consumers think about what they eat in a single eating occasion and as a whole. But it should not exist in isolation. Registered dietitians still need to translate what the icon means and apply it to individuals to help them meet their healthy eating goals.
If you’re interested in starting a healthy eating plan, let’s make an appointment! I work with individuals and families on adopting healthier lifestyles, weight loss and general wellness. Check out my website at http://www.enlightennutrition.com/ or contact me for more information.