The USDA Ditches the Food Pyramid for a Plate

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Courtesy of USDA

So long, pyramid. Welcome, MyPlate! First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled on Thursday the government’s new symbol for healthy eating, a colorful plate divided into the basic food groups, which will officially replace the well-recognized but perplexing food pyramid.

With Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the First Lady announced the new nutrition icon, known as MyPlate, as part of her ongoing campaign against obesity.

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The plate, which is based on the nutrition advice contained in the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is quartered into sections: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Half the plate is taken up by fruits and vegetables. Another smaller circle appears next to the plate representing dairy. Health officials have high hopes that the simple, clear “visual cue” will prompt consumers to make healthier eating choices — something that the decades-old food pyramid largely failed to do.

1992 Food Pyramid | Courtesy of USDA

Even Secretary Vilsack said that he had never been able to make sense of the pyramid — first introduced in 1992, then revamped in 2005 — before taking his post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “The reality is that [the pyramid] is a really complex symbol,” Vilsack said during the press conference announcing the plate icon on Thursday. “It has a lot of good information, but the reality is that it’s too complex a symbol to translate well to meals for Americans.”

MyPlate, by contrast, is a “simple, visual, research-based icon that is a clear, unmistakable message about portion size,” Vilsack said.

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Critics of the original pyramid, which placed foods that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet (grains, fruits and vegetables) at its base, with foods that should be eaten more sparingly (meat, dairy, fat, sugar) at the narrower top, said it was not easily translatable to most Americans’ dining habits. For one thing, it told people to eat a specific number of “servings” — an inscrutable measure of food — of each food group per day. Further, the pyramid did not distinguish between healthy foods like brown rice or fish and less healthy foods like white rice or sausage. (Not to mention that the design was tweaked in order to please agricultural and meat lobbies, to which the USDA is responsible.)

The revamped pyramid, which turned the original’s bricks into colorful vertical stripes representing food groups, and added a stick figure running up the side to note the importance of exercise, was even more widely ridiculed for offering no meaningful information.

2005 Food Pyramid | Courtesy of USDA

The circular MyPlate departs from the original symbol’s shape and better represents how the average person eats — on a plate. “What’s more useful than a plate? What’s more simple than a plate?” said the First Lady during the press conference. “After a long day of work, parents are asked to be the chef, the referee, the clean-up crew. You name it, we’re on it. We can’t be nutritionists as well.”

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The First Lady admitted that even she did not know how much protein was in an ounce of meat. “We can’t be expected to measure three ounces of chicken or look up a portion size of rice or broccoli.”

The government’s updated dietary guidelines released in January suggest that Americans reduce their consumption of salt, sugar and fat; they also advise people increase fruits, veggies and fish. MyPlate reflects those guidelines, showing vegetables and fruits as a bigger proportion of the plate than grains, for example.

However, the dietary guidelines also urge Americans to eat less overall — a message that health officials haven’t yet addressed. The New York Times reports:

Officials said they planned to use the plate in a campaign to communicate essential dietary guidelines to consumers, emphasizing one message at a time for best effect.

The first part of the campaign will encourage people to make half their plate fruit and vegetables. Later phases of the campaign will instruct consumers to avoid oversize portions, enjoy their food but eat less of it and to drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Nutritionists said the plate is a step up from the pyramid. “It’s better than the pyramid but that’s not saying a lot,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told the Times. She said that including a large section of the plate labeled “protein” is confusing and unnecessary, because it does not clarify that grains and dairy are important sources of protein and because most Americans already get more protein than they need, the Times reports.

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The new icon was created by USDA in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and input from the First Lady’s team. The USDA said it had conducted focus groups with about 4,500 people, including children, to develop the symbol.