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USDA Rearranges the American Plate

By Matt Brignall
June 13, 2011
File under: Diet, Health Concerns, Nutrition


Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture replaced the long-standing food pyramid icon with a new visual image based around a standard meal plate. This new graphic is the centerpiece of a dramatically reworked set of dietary recommendations that began to emerge this past February.

To understand why this is such an upgrade, let’s start with a bit of history. The original Food Pyramid was released in 1992.While it was an easily understood image, it was hardly a document geared toward controlling a trend toward obesity. It heavily emphasized grains, and provided little help with choosing grain-based foods wisely. It also emphasized meat and dairy in a way that seems in retrospect to be overly food industry-friendly and calorie-dense.

In part due to these criticisms, the USDA released the revised MyPyramid program in 2005. Unfortunately, this revision replaced the controversial areas with ambiguity, and left nutrition instructors with a concept so ponderous and difficult to understand that it never gained any traction in the community. And it was heavily and consistently slammed by educators almost from the moment of release.

I’m not surprised to see that the USDA has chosen a plate concept as a graphical theme. I’ve been using this type of guidance clinically for years, and am aware of several other mainstream and advocacy groups that have used this hook in the past.

By rearranging the food groups into a plate graphic, the new version restores the concept of proportion in the best manner yet. What might be easier to miss, though, is that the new version also radically changes these proportions from previous versions – where the 1992 version suggested up to three servings of grains / meat / dairy for every fruit or vegetable, the new version brings it to closer to one-to-one. I predict the food industry may not like this.

The bigger victory for the USDA over the food industry, though, is the complete disappearance of added fats and sweets. These were the peak of the original food pyramid (“use sparingly”), and were a small part of the revised version. This subtle, but profound, change is consistent with the USDA message about SOlid Fats and Added Sugars (SOFAS). It’s perhaps my favorite part of the new guideline.

Looking under the hood a bit, I’m also very pleased with the simple and clear action steps provided on the MyPlate web site. The pages are easy to navigate, and written in a way I would expect a grade school student to understand. Although terms like “whole foods,” “sustainable,” and “organic” don’t make any appearances, it looks to me that this supportive content was written by somebody coming from a whole-foods diet point of view.

The one obvious compromise solution in MyPlate is the rebranding of meat and beans to protein. I understand where they were probably coming from – the USDA was sued earlier this year by a physician group upset with the lack of vegetarian alternatives presented in the MyPyramid schema.

I think that using the term protein is going to increase ambiguity without giving any incentive toward increasing plant-based protein sources, and may even have the unfortunate effect of giving further fuel to faddish high-protein diet gurus. That said, the MyPlate website does offer some good content around vegetarian diets, even going so far as to provide some easy instructions on how to eat a balanced diet without meat.

Admittedly, the 2005 revisions to the original Food Pyramid concept set the bar for improvement awfully low. Still, this new MyPlate concept is almost everything I could have hoped for, and represents a beautiful balance between simplicity and complexity. Well done, USDA.

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