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USDA's new Nutrition Plate. [Photograph: United States Department of Agriculture]

Since the early 1900s, the USDA has been providing nutritional recommendations to help Americans maintain a healthy, balanced diet. Initially intended to prevent malnutrition and increase lifespan, the very first government advice was aimed at improving the diets of children. In the 1940s, a "basic seven" food groups was introduced—in keeping with the cultural values of the times, one food group was "butter and fortified margarine." By the 1950s, meat, milk, vegetables, and grains had been identified as the four primary categories of foods that Americans should be consuming on a daily basis.

In 1992, the first food pyramid was introduced. This pyramid separated fruits and veggies into two different categories, and also provided a visual understanding of how much of each category we should be eating. Grains formed the bulk of a healthy diet (up to 11 servings a day), and the tip of the pyramid contained sweets and oils meant to be "used sparingly." There was no distinction between lean and fatty meats or dairy.

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Then in 2005, the most recent food pyramid was introduced (see above).

Its stripes of color were meant to indicate different food groups, but less text led to confused interpretations of the pyramid. The "meat" category was renamed as "meat and beans," to acknowledge a rise in vegetarian diets. But generally this pyramid got a lot of slack for being confusing, rigid, and still not providing proper nutritional advice to an American populace that clearly needed some direction.

So. Enter the new Nutrition Plate.

Surely you've seen it by now—a dinner plate sectioned into nearly equal parts fruits, vegetables, protein, and grains, with a small circle of dairy hanging on nearby. Announced on June 2 by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama, the new visualization of our diets is meant to give healthier and more concrete advice to Americans.

The grains should be whole grains; the dairy, low-fat; proteins are lean meats, beans, nuts, and seafood. Fruits and veggies should make up half of one's diet, rather than a third as expressed in prior pyramids. Fats and sweets are nowhere to be found.

The plate is meant to be educational, and is connected to the goals of Obama's Let's Move! campaign. As such, the interactive and fairly easy-to-use Choose My Plate website has sections devoted to identifying and reducing intake of "empty calories." As well as warning against obvious diet-killers like cake and candies, the USDA also targets sugar-sweetened cereals, whole-fat milk, and regular ground beef as foods that may be hiding unnecessary fats and sugars. The site provides alternatives to many of the foods it identifies as unhealthy.

There are several components to the Plate icon that can be seen as improvements to the old food pyramid. First, the goals of the plate are multiple—to increase intake of healthy foods, while also educating consumers on how to decrease consumption of sugar and fat. The plate graphic is also easy to understand, if a little childish, and can be easily remembered while piling one's own dinner plate at home.

Critics have noted that the USDA continues to over-emphasize protein as a cornerstone of the American diet. One could also question how useful the new recommendations will be in a culture that eats a huge percentage of meals in restaurants and on the go, without much control over what's on the menu. Such a drastic change as removing the food pyramid—which for so many years has defined nutritional education and understanding in the U.S.—is bound to bring some pushback.

You've already started a spirited debate about the new plate over in Talk. But after mulling it over and comparing to past pyramids, what do you think of the new system? Will the plate encourage us to eat healthier?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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