Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Say Goodbye to the Food Pyramid!

Say Goodbye to the Food Pyramid!

By Denis Faye

In their continued quest to be a relevant source of information regarding the American diet, the USDA retired their food pyramid earlier this month, replacing it with MyPlate, the new, improved—not to mention circular—representation of how they think the general public should eat. The recommendations really didn't change from the 2010 food pyramid revamp, but it's progress nonetheless, I suppose. It may have taken them 19 years, but the government has finally figured out that average Americans tend to eat on round plates, as opposed to triangular ones.

USDA's MyPlate

The new graphic features a plate filled with equal portions of veggies and grains, smaller but still substantial portions of fruits and proteins, and a small(ish) serving of dairy. While these portion sizes haven't changed, MyPlate is an improvement on the old recommendations based primarily on the plain, clear language featured front and center on the main page of the Web site, right below the graphic:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

If you walk down to your local mega-box store and have a look at all the folks pulling elastic-waisted pants off the plus-size racks, you'll see visual evidence that Americans just don't know how to eat. So good for the USDA for using simple, basic language to point out universal truths.

In defense of the USDA

USDA LogoIf you spend much time in the food blogosphere, you know that the USDA's latest educational effort has many detractors. Complaints are probably best summed up by the blog Fooducate:

"With all due respect, the USDA should not be the government body dishing out (pun intended) nutrition advice . . . It's not a good idea to have the same organization that promotes agricultural and food production and sales be the one telling us what's healthy to eat."

While this is a valid point, I think we should save the conspiracy theories for Elvis, JFK, and the UFOs. Big Agra might have played a role in making MyPlate closer to McPlate, but I think a far more oppressive special interest group at play here is the American people in general. For example, let's look at the USDA's continued insistence that we need up to 8 servings of grains a day. In truth, while grains are a perfectly acceptable source of carbs, fiber, and other nutrients for 90 percent of the population, they pale nutritionally when compared to vegetables. However, if the government came out and told consumers they'd be better off with more salads and fewer sandwiches, Americans just wouldn't have it. We love our bread, so my guess is that the USDA keeps the grain numbers up in order to keep us from ignoring the recommendations completely. A telling sign of this is the bright red italic, large-font message plastered all over the MyPlate Web site: "Key Consumer Message: Make at least half your grains whole grains."

Half? Really? I haven't had a refined grain in about 2 weeks. There's no need for refined grain in a healthy diet—and I don't think the USDA put this plea in there to appease Big Agra, which profits from grain sales whether consumers eat the bran and husk or not. This "Key Consumer Message" has the distinct ring of a negotiation you have with a 6-year-old when you're trying to get him to eat his broccoli. It was put in there to appease those Americans who refuse to accept that Pop-Tarts® aren't a complete nutritional source.

Another complaint a lot of people have is the continued importance placed on dairy in the recommendations. I'm prone to agree, but in defense of the USDA, the site does plainly feature the section, "For those who choose not to consume milk products."

Where they screwed up

Woman Eating SaladWarm fuzzies aside, I do think the USDA could have done a few things differently. As I mentioned earlier, their treatment of grains was a little off. Also, their handling of protein leaves a lot to be desired. It assumes that consumers eat meat. While there is an informative section on the vegetarian diet, I'd rather see a more integrated approach to plant-based nutrition. For people who regularly eat meat and just want a few nonmeat protein options, MyPlate offhandedly recommends beans and nuts, and that's about it. In a way, this is decent advice, because combining these two foods with all the grain you're supposed to eat will give you all the amino acids you need to have complete proteins, but a more effective path would have been to create a whole separate nut-and-bean portion equal to the grain portion. With the guaranteed complete proteins this approach would introduce into the user's diet, he or she could reduce the meat protein portion to a healthier level.

Another notable absence from MyPlate is education on healthy fats vs. unhealthy fats, save a vague message stating, "Oils are NOT a food group, but they provide essential nutrients. Therefore, oils are included in USDA food patterns." Given the vast amount of research that indicates the health benefits of good fats, not to mention the fact that some fatty acids are ESSENTIAL to human health, the USDA might want to think about giving fat its own food group. Under this umbrella, they could stress the importance of foods like olive oil, avocados, and, most of all, super-nutritious nuts and seeds.

Some of you might note that I've just suggested adding two additional food groups to MyPlate, thus further complicating an already complex topic to educate people on. I concede that I understand why the USDA sugar-coats (literally!) their nutritional advice, with a little refined flour here and a little ham there, but that doesn't mean they need to dumb down their message. As long as information is presented clearly to them, humans are capable of understanding remarkably complex issues, be they delivered via circle or triangle.

Case in point? The University of Michigan's Healing Foods Pyramid (http://www.med.umich.edu/umim/food-pyramid/index.htm), which offers the nut/bean and fat portion changes I suggested, plus several others, in a concise, understandable way. It breaks down food choices into weekly and daily needs; stresses the importance of hydration; and even includes space for "accompaniments," a euphemism for "junk food."

The USDA could learn a thing or two from these college kids. They should certainly spend a little time on the Healing Foods Pyramid before coming out with their next round of nutritional suggestions. I applaud the USDA for trying to do the right thing by the American public, but maybe it's time to step up the game a little and assume we can handle a little tough nutritional love. Next time, let's spend a little less time worrying about the shape of the plate and a little more time figuring out what should go on it.

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