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MyPlate and your plate

Replacing the food pyramid with a plate icon is a good start, but there's still room for improvement.

June 07, 2011

No matter which food group was at the top and which at the bottom, the venerable food pyramid never did make much sense. How big were the servings supposed to be? And what were all those rainbow-colored stripes? The pyramid also lost a lot of respect over the years when the public realized that its recommendations — whether to fill up on meat, dairy or mountains of grains — were based in part on which segments of the agricultural industry wielded the most clout.

The new icon and recommendations released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are a lot healthier and are a more helpful contribution to public well-being. MyPlate is a large circle representing a dinner dish, divided to show that fruits and vegetables should make up half the food consumed, with protein and grains sharing the other half. A small blue circle representing low-fat or nonfat dairy rests to the side. There is no place on this plate for junk food.

The simple "plate" makes it easy for people to see what a meal should look like in terms of nutrition — and there are few plates of food served up in the country right now that resemble it. More common: a hunk of meat as the centerpiece, accompanied by a heaping helping of pasta or bread — usually from refined grains. Vegetables are an afterthought, more a colorful decoration in the corner than a significant part of the meal.

When the giant portions at many restaurants are taken into account, the ratios make all the more difference. It's important to avoid overeating, but if people are going to take in a large volume of food, they'll get fewer calories and more nutrition if most of that food is in the form of produce.

The new guidelines aren't perfect. A glass of water would be an important addition. And fruit juice, which is generally laden with sugar calories and very little additional nutrition, should not receive equal billing with whole fruits. The recommendations don't differentiate between potatoes and broccoli as vegetables. The most-consumed vegetable in this country is the potato, and the form in which it is most often consumed is the French fry. Potatoes are nutritious and belong on the plate, but they contain more calories than many other vegetables, and a half-plate of fries surely isn't what MyPlate's designers had in mind.

Another significant problem is the disparity between MyPlate's generally sound recommendations and federal policies that subsidize the foods we're supposed to eat less of: grains such as wheat, and sweets in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. That's the source of sugar found in most sodas, and those subsidies are one of the reasons such unhealthful beverages are so cheap. If the government is going to support agriculture in the public interest, a spinach subsidy would make more sense.

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