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Goodbye Food Pyramid!

The USDA has updated their symbol of nutrition from the ubiquitous "Food Pyramid" to MyPlate. But is all the focus on nutrition being directed at a meaningless graphic?

Recently, the USDA announced that it would be retiring its longstanding symbol of healthy eating, the Food Pyramid, in favor of a new, more family pleasing graphic, MyPlate.

In addition to the obvious shape and structure changes, the new MyPlate emphasizes fruits and veggies over the former Pyramid’s favoring of grains. The identifiable breakdown of a balanced meal relegates protein to side dish status and pushes the dairy component off the plate entirely. While exact serving size and categorization of food items is not immediately available on the new graphic, additional information is available on the USDA MyPlate site.

Proponents of the Plate criticize the Food Pyramid as incomprehensible to the average consumer. Translating the densely packed pyramid required a food preparer to pay strong attention to serving size, as well as keeping track of servings within servings of dishes. Translating the basic dietary guidelines to serve the average family allows everyone to understand the language of healthy eating.

Indeed, the plate is simple to understand, perhaps too simple, say some critics. How can the plate support healthy eating when little information beyond colorful blocks of generalized food groups are identified on the image? Criticism of the plate includes the complaint that the plate image gives no better understanding of what is considered healthy within each food group. Nutritious eating is far more complicated than its general categories may indicate, they argue, and the plate only misleads consumers. (Fruit juice, for example, contains natural sugars that metabolize in the body at rate similar to soda pop. Yet fruit juice can be considered a part of the “fruits” food group.)

Both sides make fair points. While daily nutrition is a far more complex issue than reflected on MyPlate, the new image is a step in the right direction for the USDA. They’re not claiming that this is the be-all, end-all of healthy eating directives. They simply wanted an image that would resonate in the kitchens of average consumers. While the Food Pyramid is something learned as a child and quickly disregarded, the Plate is a fairly easy ideal to put in place for every meal.

Still, I find myself agreeing mostly with USDA critics who dismiss the image of healthy eating as a minor issue in the fight for healthy eating. Even with a revitalized healthy eating campaign, the fact remains that for many, many Americans, a nutritious diet is not a matter of knowledge, but a matter of economic status.

A great quote from Hank Cardello (and quoted in an opinion piece about the Plate in the LA Times) calls for a solution to one of the biggest obstacles in bringing fresh, healthy foods to populations who need them:

Perhaps there is another way to address the food desert dilemma. Instead of prompting grocers to enter unprofitable markets, why don’t we bring the inner city residents to the grocery stores? After all, there are over 30,000 supermarkets located in nearby suburban and non-rural areas. It’s just a question of finding an easy way to transport the shoppers.

Cardello’s point is apt: What good is an image defining a healthy manner of eating when the products themselves are not available to consumers? And encouraging grocery stores to open locations in markets that are financially unstable is a fool’s errand. But is the answer as simple as busing people out of the inner city to suburban markets? Would their income level jibe with the average prices in a suburban supermarket?

What do you think about the new MyPlate? Is the new image a tremendous step forward for healthy eating or is it missing the larger issues entirely?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Sarah Eates July 06, 2011 at 06:41 PM
I personally like MyPlate more than the pyramid. I think more importantly it's not how much of a particular group you are eating, but rather the type and quality. I've been reading a lot of books in the past couple of years that talk about food and the ingredients. I've noticed when I started to eat a little more natural, that not only did I feel better, but my weight loss got better. I firmly believe that if you go back to the foods that nature gives us, you will receive countless benefits. That's where we need get back too if we truly want to be a healthy society.
robert t July 12, 2011 at 05:15 PM
I think it's missing the larger issue entirely. I think healthy eating has less to do with serving sizes and more to do with what people 1) put in their bodies and 2) do with their bodies. Lunches served in school cafeterias are supposed to adhere to the FDA required allowances for food intake, but are unhealthy (e.g., pizza, fries, flavored milk, meat discards, etc.)-- fast food is not much different but demonized. Even eating something that should be healthy like bread is met with an ingredient list way too long and full of unpronouncable components with some being unhealthier alternatives due to government policy (e.g., high fructose corn syrup vs. sugar). So while the government may promote 'healthy eating' initiatives, the government also promotes 'unhealthy food'. My latter point is simply about exercise. People don't do it enough. Being healthy requires individual responsibility, not pretty graphics and government programs. Sure, economic status may play some role in obesity, but it's inexpensive to grow vegetables in pots and to walk around the block.

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