Goodbye Pyramid, Hello Plate: By the Numbers

Last week, the Department of Agriculture unveiled a new, specially designed icon to help Americans eat better. The icon, called MyPlate, will be replacing MyPyramid. Government officials (including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama) explained MyPlate as a simple tool to build healthy meals and that additional resources will be made available over the next year to supplement the icon. It definitely looks like the USDA is trying to make good with this dietary guidance initiative, going so far as to highlight how the icon should not be used.

Predictably, there are many opinions about MyPlate. Here are ten MyPlate numbers you can bring up the next time someone starts talking nutrition.

1. 50: The percentage of your plate that should be fruits and vegetables. According to MyPlate, fruits and vegetables are supposed to make up half of your plate. There should be more vegetables than fruits.

2. 0: The number of references to exercise on MyPlate. Unlike the MyPyramid, the new icon doesn’t include a stick figure working out. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise.)

3. 25: The percentage of your plate that should be protein. Protein is supposed to make up 25% of your plate. In the past, this category used to be described with the words “meat and beans” – the use of the word “protein” reflects the recognition that protein comes from many sources. There are some conflicting opinions about whether 25% is too high of a recommendation, given that most Americans get a more than adequate amount.

4. 1: The number of times the word dairy appears on MyPlate. Dairy still appears as a food group, but it is now shown in liquid form off to the side of the plate. Many nutrition professionals take issue with its presence, saying that there are plenty of better sources of calcium.

5. 0: The number of times “fat” or “added sugars” appears on MyPlate. The new icon does not visually address fats or sugar (which is a departure from the pyramid icons). However, the written Dietary Guidelines released earlier this year very clearly recommend reducing consumption of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS).

6. 3: The number of clear behavior changes that go along with the icon. MyPlate can stand alone, but it’s more accurately interpreted when accompanied by the following messaging:

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 milk)
Foods to reduce (compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers; drink water instead of sugary drinks)

7. $2 million: The amount of money spent to develop and promote MyPlate. Compare this to how much money the food industry spends on advertising. The FTC estimates that 44 major food and beverage companies spent $1.6 billion dollars to promote their products in 2006 – and that’s just the advertising geared to kids under 17.

8. At least 4: The number of other organizations using plates for dietary guidance. Using a plate to educate people about diet is pretty logical, and not a new concept. It’s been used by the American Diabetes Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the Canadian government and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

9. 4: The number of dietary advice icons created by the government before MyPlate. The first time the government issued dietary advice was in 1910, but the very first food icon (Basic Seven) showed up in 1941. New icons were presented in 1956 (Basic Four), 1991 (the original pyramid) and 2005 (MyPyramid).

10. Countless: The number of reasons there’s still work to do. MyPlate is a step in the right direction, but there is a lot of work remaining if we are to get the nation fit and healthy again. Now that there are some pretty clear indications that we need to be eating more fruits and vegetables, it’s time to get our agriculture policy aligned with our dietary guidance.

Just to round out the numbers, here are some direct quotes from nutrition experts:

“It’s going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information.” – Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health

“It conveys the message simply in a way that we all can understand.” – David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration

“It’s worlds better than the confusing pyramid it’s replacing. It can theoretically actually help guide what a person might put on their plate without requiring them to wade through pages of reading (like Canada’s Food Guide does).” – Yoni Freedhoff

“Optimist that I am, I think the icon has plenty for everyone to work with. It emphasizes the positives – fruits, vegetables, whole grains – and leaves lots of room for enjoyment. You can pile whatever foods you like on that plate as long as they fit within their assigned sectors.” – Marion Nestle

What do you think about the new icon? Will MyPlate become your plate?

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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One Response to Goodbye Pyramid, Hello Plate: By the Numbers

  1. A Rockett says:

    “MyPlate” is a much better way to explain good nutrition to teens and adults. It’s easy to visualize that 50% of plate should be veggies & fruits, 25% protein and so on. The hard part is this: Translating the precepts of MyPlate’s nutrition recommendations into the modern fast-food diet. How do we reduce consumption of bread, pasta, potatoes, fries, rice, tortillas? These are all high calorie, low nutrition, government subsidized and inexpensive (e.g. highly profitable) and conveniently-available-everywhere food staples. It’s these foods are contributing to so many chronic illnesses and the epidemic of obesity in this country. Instead of these foods, how do we get people to load up on a pile of veggies or fruits instead? How are we to translate MyPlate into desirable, portable fast food that fits the lifestyles and budgets of Americans? Or, in other words, how will busy working adults, teens and college students be able to afford to eat off MyPlate? Especially since so many meals are eaten in the front seat of a car these days. These questions will need to be answered for healthier eating to become the norm for most Americans.

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