An Improvement – Plate over Pyramid?

June 14, 2011 in Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

The Government's "MyPlate" Graphic

It has almost been two weeks since First Lady Michelle Obama replaced the old Food Pyramid with the new MyPlate; which is designed to help guide Americans toward healthy eating habits. Some say it’s easier to relate to MyPlate than the 1992 and 2005 Food Pyramids, which have both failed to slow the obesity crisis. I think that a plate will be easier to relate to, but I’m not sure it’s going to solve our significant nutritional problems.

There are already some who are expressing dissatisfaction, however – “it’s too simple,” they say. Remember, one of the major goals was to make the logo simpler. I think the old adage “You can’t please all the people, all the time” is probably an understatement. It is probably true that you can’t please all the people, ANY of the time. The problem with the pyramid was that it was too complex, so they wanted to design something that was easier to understand – oops! – Now too simple, according to some.

Some of the ‘problems’ that have been aired are:

  1. You can fit a stack of French fries into the vegetable portion of ‘MyPlate’ a couple of inches tall, which is too much of a fatty, starchy, processed vegetable.
  2. The plate doesn’t separate whole grains.
  3. Why does the dairy group get it’s own space separate from the ‘protein’ section? Some suggest that it is “lobbying at it’s finest.” I tend to agree; the Dairy Council seems to have lobbying perfected to a fine science. A serving of dairy has as much protein as a serving of meat, chicken, fish, beans, nuts and seeds. Don’t forget that you can get calcium from dark-green leafy vegetables, like: collard greens, turnip greens, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, mustard greens and others; in addition to yogurt, canned sardines or salmon with the bones, cheese and milk.
  4. MyPlate discourages sugary drinks, yet the USDA allows chocolate milk (loaded with sugar) to be used on a daily basis in schools.
  5. MyPlate is not helping people learn the difference between unhealthy fats and healthier fats.
  6. The complexities of trying to get a food into a group; like beans (vegetable or protein)? Tomatoes – fruit or vegetable?
  7. Forgetting that vegetables and whole grains also contribute to protein intake.
  8. I’m certainly going to miss the walking stick figure of the second pyramid; he was a nice reminder that physical activity is an important component of health.
  9. One and a half cups of ice cream contributes to the dairy intake. Yikes for most of us!  That could be 500 calories or more.

Some of the factors that are being praised are:

  1. It’s putting more emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
  2. It’s trying to depict the need for less protein foods.
  3. Half the plate being allocated for fruits and vegetables may be able to help us move away from the base of the diet being grains, as in the past. Pop tarts, and junk processed cereal are grain products; right?
  4. If you double click on the portions on the plate, protein for example, it is explained that meat, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, eggs, processed soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers), nuts, and seeds all provide protein. Milk also can work in this section, but it is not listed.

I think that those who complain should try to come up with a SIMPLE symbol to convey the many messages that the designers are striving to send. I, frankly, don’t think I could really do it; especially if I had to listen to all the lobbies.

The biggest question of all, as related to MyPlate is if it will really help individuals adopt healthier behaviors. Andy Bellatti begs the question, “How, Exactly?”

The point that Andy Bellatti makes is that Americans do know that fruits and vegetables are healthy and that they compete in the marketplace with artificially priced junk food (subsidized wheat, corn and soy that are frequently made into nutritionally inferior, highly processed products. Trix and Lucky Charms are made with crop subsidies; meat is cheap because cows are fed government-subsidized crops – it’s difficult for fresh fruits and vegetables to compete on a level playing field. Bellatti says that MyPlate will not suddenly make a pound of vegetables cost less, and box of Lucky Charms cost more.

This past weekend, we had a birthday party for Dr. Grandpa, (Vic). It was interesting to me that several of our guests said, “It was so delicious and so healthy.” I made a huge lazy Susan with watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, cherries, kiwi, oranges, and pineapple. The bags of cut fruit were in the refrigerator, ready to be used to refill the sections of the lazy Susan. I refilled several times. I also had spring greens from my vegetable garden (see pictures below), little tomatoes, cucumbers, French radishes (also from the garden), mandarin oranges and toasted sunflower seeds. The two serving areas were very colorful and inviting.

Bellatti says that MyPlate, “…is the nutritional equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather than fix the issues at hand with policies that promote health, the USDA chooses to distract us with colorful pictures and press releases that attempt to pass tinsel as gold.”

It really is difficult to make all the eating advice fit into five little sections. Eating healthy is a complex venture; from my perspective MyPlate strives to move us to a more plant-based eating style. The USDA site does have links that can help give more advice than the limitations of a simple logo. The reality is that a pitiable diet is entrenched in our culture, where meat is the main course. We don’t really need so much animal meat, whether chicken, fish or meat. We should strive to have more meals, solely based upon plant foods; whole plant foods, not highly refined versions of the real thing. And, if not, devoid of animal products, use the animal foods sparingly; for example, sprinkle on, add in a stir fry; or in a casserole.

If we truly want to move away from the obesity trend, we need to learn how to prepare vegetables. Steamed or boiled vegetables with no salt, no herbs or spices are dull. I believe that using herbs, spices, and seasonings is key to making MyPlate a reality. I’ve seen the evidence for decades – well-seasoned vegetables are eagerly consumed, but plain, unseasoned steamed or boiled are frequently regarded as just blah. Something the Mom has to say, “Eat Your Vegetables!” Keep “Good Health Can Be Yummy” in mind for every meal – it really is vital. While MyPlate will not solve the obesity crisis, maybe it will, at least, help to remind us to increase our fruit and vegetable consumption.

Red and green leaf baby lettuce.

Spring mesculn mix.

Cabbage, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and lettuce

Carrots, lettuce and onions.

We're talking greens! Am I having too much fun?