USDA steps up to the plate

As of Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has officially retired the food pyramid, replacing it with an easy-to-read, plate shaped icon. “MyPlate” is divided into four sections, indicating what types of food (and how much of them) should occupy a person’s plate at each meal. Its designers are hopeful that the simple, meal-by-meal visual guide will be easier for Americans to understand than the pyramid, which has been called both confusing and misleading. (For example, bacon and cold cuts are technically meat products, which could place them in the same category as healthier options like fish, chicken or beans.)

The USDA is counting on the MyPlate to eliminate a lot of the confusion left in the pyramid’s wake, but will it work? To get the skinny on the pro’s and con’s of the new plate icon, we spoke with David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the the Boston Children’s/New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.

Many experts say the old food pyramid is too difficult to understand, possibly even misleading (i.e. some incarnations seemed to imply that ALL fats are bad for you). Now that it’s gone, what are you’re thoughts on the pyramid?

The initial Food Guide Pyramid, released in 1992, gave clear advice to avoid all fats and load up on starch. The advice was wrong, but at least it was specific. Then, in 2005 it was updated to the

2005's MyPyramid may have been an improvement from earlier food pyramids, but not by much

MyPyramid model, but that was a marvel of miscommunication, with colored bands leading to a mixture of foods lying around at the bottom. Looking at MyPyramid, one wonders if an earthquake hit the first pyramid, and knocked all the nicely arrayed food to the ground.  Although it may seem funny, the confusion and misunderstanding arising from these icons has negatively impacted public health.  Without specific, scientifically informed guidance, products like the “low fat Twinkie” have been marketed as a health food, when in reality they aren’t much different from a bowl of sugar.  Hopefully, with release of the new Plate icon, the Pyramids will remain permanently in Egypt.

In what way is MyPlate a step-up from the pyramid?

The new icon is a huge improvement, with clear, unambiguous and simple advice. The most notable change is the recommendation to cover half the plate with vegetables and fruits, dietary categories that are greatly underconsumed by all Americans, especially children. In addition, portion size of starchy foods like grains is, by implication, smaller now, limited to a quarter of the plate. (No, the 16 oz portion of pasta is no longer compliant).

What are some ways the plate comes up short?

Not all grain products are the same. Whole grains are a healthier option than refined grain products

One obvious drawback of the new icon is its failure to emphasize the distinction between health-promoting whole grains (brown rice, traditional steel-cut oats, or stone-ground breads) from refined grain products like white bread, sugary breakfast cereals and most processed snacks. Recent research clearly shows that these types of refined carbohydrates promote weight gain and increase risk for diabetes and heart disease. Another concern is the over-emphasis on dairy, represented as its own side dish. Ironically, there is absolutely no biological requirement for dairy products, and many of the healthiest diets throughout the world (e.g., the traditional Okinawa Diet) have little to no dairy.

Exercise is a very important part of maintaining a healthy weight. Do you feel the new visual guide does enough to emphasis that?

Despite the presence of a stick figure running up the side of MyPyramid since 2005, Americans have continued to be sedentary, so clearly a visual representation of an active lifestyle is not a cure-all. I think the new icon would do well to focus on improving nutrition, which research shows to be the primary driver of the obesity epidemic. If needed, we can always develop another image to promote physical activity.