Earlier this month, the food pyramid officially became old news as the government rolled out a new image to promote healthy eating: a plate depicting the five food groups and how much space they should occupy at mealtime.
Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been developing this initiative over the past several years, is putting significant effort behind promoting this simpler symbol as a way to translate the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans into a user-friendly visual.
The plate symbol, available at ChooseMyPlate.gov, is accompanied by pointers highlighting the most important recommendations of the Guidelines, such as cutting down on fatty foods and refined sugars and subbing in more veggies, grains and leaner proteins, including fish and other seafood.
“This is one way to help reduce the alarming trends we have of obesity and public illness,” said Dr. Robert Post, deputy director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans last week. “We know that finding that trigger, that signal is really a very important thing.”
As USDA is using a multi-pronged approach to pull that trigger, promoting My Plate in schools, grocery stores and communities and mobilizing social media networks.
The department is also encouraging people to snap photos of the healthy plates they put together themselves and share them Twitter, Facebook or the USDA Flickr Photo Group.
White House Chef Sam Kass, who is helping promote the new diagram, says he often gets texts from friends with pictures of healthy plates filled with food they’ve made.
The plate is also intended to inspire people to cook more of their own meals, according to Kass.
“Cooking is one of our greatest strategies for putting healthy food on our plates,” he said, speaking with Post in New Orleans.
But that doesn’t mean that people eating lunch out of a bag or wrapper are exempt from eating more nutritious meals, said Post.
“One thing I don’t think we want to do is make this complicated, and to standardize it, says Post. “I think it can equally represent a bowl or a cup,” he said.
The plate is versatile in other ways, too.
“Beyond being a framework, this plate can be a million of different dishes,” said Kass. “Every ethnicity, every traditional kind of food has their version of the plate. That’s what I think is really exciting for chefs.”
One concern with the new plate metaphor for health eating is that recent studies have shown that larger average plate sizes have been contributing to weight gain in America.
Post has a response to this problem: we need to shrink plate sizes, too.
“Eat your dinner on your lunch plate, and then choose a smaller cup,” Post told Food Safety News. “Instead of the 8 oz, go to 4 oz. That’ll be part of the messages that make this work,” he said.
Indeed one of the 8 bullet points underneath the plate at the MyPlate website advises, “Enjoy your food, but eat less,” and “Avoid oversized portions.”
That’s the theme of the messages: simple and straightforward.
The other recommendations are equally digestible:
– Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
– Make at least half your grains whole grains
– Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk
– Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers
– Drink water instead of sugary drinks
Food Safety News had one concern with this new picture: where are the desserts? On the old pyramid, dessert occupied a small but prime spot, with the suggestion to only have 1 a day.
“You’ll never hear a message saying don’t have dessert,” he replied. However, “One thing for sure is that we don’t need to encourage people to be eating a lot more dessert. We’re eating plenty of dessert.”
“We’re eating like 300 percent more calories from sugar and refined grain than we need, so that’s a lot,” he pointed out to Food Safety News.
Post adds that desserts are included in the dairy, grain and fruit section of the plate. Examples include crème brûlée, cake and cobbler.
Another change to this dietary plan is a new emphasis on eating more seafood. While the seafood industry is happy with this suggestion, it has a beef with the new “protein” category, which it says people will automatically associate with meat.
“The question would be when you think of seafood, do you think of protein?” said Richard Draves, vice president of Product Development for the American Seafoods Group, in an interview with Food Safety News. I think it’s pretty easy when you think of meat to think of protein. There’s a pretty positive association there. I’m not sure that exists for seafood.”
He says this problem can be solved through raising awareness about where fish fit on the plate.
“Part of what we have to do as industry is we have to get our message out and help educate people to understand that seafood is protein,” he says.
Post and Kass hope that with a symbol that relates to what people see every day on the table, MyPlate will be widely adopted.
“We think that because now there’s a visual cue that actually relates to daily life … I think that it can have the impact that everybody who’s been working on these types of issues for such a long time has been looking for,” says Kass.