June’s Nutrition Hot Topic: Plate Vs Pyramid

This topic is fresh off the press. It cannot get any hotter than this. I’ve literally singed off my fingerprints by merely writing about this one. Last week the USDA unveiled the newest version of the Food Guide Pyramid, except it’s no longer a pyramid. The newest model for healthy eating has adopted the shape of a plate. This seems practical enough. While I’ve heard mixed reviews about the new plate, I have to say no matter what the USDA designs, I think it’s impossible to please everyone 100% of the time. I do not envy the task force whose job it was to design this thing. Pyramid, plate, or poodle – conveying the message of healthy eating in one clear, concise image is never as simple as it sounds. There are countless sources out there feeding us information on what healthy eating really is.  It’s vegetarian, vegan, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Weight Watchers and the list goes on and on. So for now, I simply want to discuss a few of the older Food Guide Pyramids and address the new Food Plate.

The USDA's original food pyramid from 1992.

Image via Wikipedia

I think most of us are familiar with the 1992 version of the Food Guide Pyramid. I know it’s the one I grew up with and it tends to be the most recognized version. This pyramid is uncomplicated; the largest group being grains, then fruits and vegetables, followed by dairy and various protein sources and finally concluded with fats, oils and sweets. Attached to each group are serving suggestions.

But Kimberly, aren’t carbohydrates the enemy? Should everyone consume 11 servings of grain in a day? No. That is why ranges are given. While hunting around online for articles on our various Food Guide Pyramids, a common response readers supplied was that our grains group should not be the base of our food models. I find myself saying this all the time, but carbohydrates are not your enemy. On average, one serving of grain is about 15 grams of carbohydrate or 100 calories. If you consume the minimum recommended amount (6 servings according to the 1992 model) that equates to 600 calories a day. If you think that sounds like a lot of calories, I encourage you to seek professional help.

Honestly, I kind of like the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid. It’s simple and straightforward. There’s no color-coding or guess-work required. All it needs is a little tweaking. Throw in something about whole grains, specify diary sources should be low-fat, emphasize lean protein, and give examples of what makes up a serving size in each category and like that chick with the braces you took to Prom, this thing is ready to go.

Maybe it’s not that simple, but I think the 1992 version of the Food Guide Pyramid was a boat load better than the 2005 train wreck the USDA designed. It’s like the Department of Agriculture got Gremlins wet, gave them some computer software and locked them in a room for 48 hours. The final product turned out to be more confusing than the LOST series finale. I myself didn’t understand it. I try to use the word “hate” sparingly in my vocabulary. But this 2005 version is about as pointless as putting life jackets in a casino. To say I loved this pyramid would be as idiotic as U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner’s inability to identify whether or not that lewd photo was of himself. Which to me begs three questions: (1) Are you really THAT unfamiliar with the lower half of your body? (2) Are there so many indecent photos of you running around, you simply cannot keep track of them all? (3) Really?!

Moving on. The only thing they got right on this version was the direct shout-out to physical activity. That stick figure knows the importance of getting your heart rate up. Other than that, this bewildering depiction of a properly balanced diet is about as understandable as a five-year old explaining their favorite part about nap time.

The widths of each category are supposed to indicate the intended portion of the diet each group should make up. Instead it’s like an optical illusion.  Is the dairy band bigger than the vegetable band?! There is zero indication of portion size. The fats portion of the pyramid looks like it was hastily added at the end, not unlike you’re decision to use the restroom at the movie theatre three minutes before the show starts. The only example of fat provided in the menagerie of images is canola oil. Helpful. If you want to know anything about the number of servings allotted per day or what makes up a serving size you must log on to mypryamid.gov and root around until you find the answer. This is super applicable to the general population who has vast amounts of time on their hands. Ugh. I cannot discuss this thing any further.

Which brings us to the new Food Plate. I think it may be slightly better than the 2005 Food Guide Pyramid. While I don’t hate it, I also don’t love it. Returning to simplicity is something I find myself stating and restating. We make food too difficult.  It doesn’t have to be so complicated. Yes, this is true. It seems like the USDA was reading my blog and designed this plate with my verbiage in mind.

Bam! Above is the new food model for the United States population. A plate half filled with fruits and vegetables, a grains portion equal to that of the vegetables and a small source of protein. All this coupled with a glass/bowl of dairy. Got it? Thank you all for reading. Good night.

Below are purely my opinions. Take them. Leave them. Pass them off as your own. I don’t care.

First let’s discuss what they got right.
1. Visualization
For starters a plate is much more relatable than a pyramid.  We eat the majority of our meals off them, so to reinvent our food guide model onto this shape was somewhat genius (boy, does that feel like the wrong word). One common complaint I hear from old and young people alike is that they don’t know how to eat. That may sound ridiculous, but it’s not. By depicting what the average meal should resemble, this model helps us imagine what a properly balanced diet looks like. And this is a step in the right direction. Essentially, the USDA is saying mimic this design, and you’re on the right track.

2. Plate Portions
If there is one thing you should have noticed about this plate, it’s that half of it is covered in stuff many of us don’t get enough of: fruits and vegetables.  It’s pretty optimistic to get half your plate filled with both of these groups.  So maybe start small.  Perhaps it’s filling a quarter of your plate with these items. Regardless, bulking up on fruits and vegetables can be a great way to fill your belly and still retain a low-calorie meal. And that right there can be a recipe for weight loss.

3. Re-labeled Protein
The most notable change in this food model, other than its shape, is the protein portion.  It is no longer labeled meat and beans (see the 2005 version). The plainer “protein” title indicates, to me anyway, that there are other protein sources out there besides meat. Beans, legumes, and nuts are just a few of the lesser-known protein sources.

Now for the mistakes.
1. Grains
I’ve spoken to a handful of people about it and there is one unanimous observation constantly brought up. What makes up grains? You mean the orange pie wedge didn’t provide you with enough information? Oy! There’s also no mention of whole grains. If you read my post on whole grains you’ll recall the new USDA dietary guidelines recommend half our grain consumption to be whole grains.

2. Missing Foods
Where are the healthy fats and sweets? I understand we’re in the middle of an obesity crisis, but to completely take them off the table, so to speak, seems rather glaring.  We’ve gone from sparingly to obsolete in less than 10 years time.

First Lady, Michelle Obama, has attached her name to the cause of healthier eating. Her Let’s Move! Campaign is aimed to solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. This is an optimistic goal I hope occurs during my lifetime.  But is healthy eating really about deprivation? Simply not including healthy fats and sweets doesn’t mean people will stop consuming them. In fact by not addressing them at all, it may do the exact opposite.

3. Over Simplification
This last point encompasses the plate in its entirety. Is the plate so rudimentary that is doesn’t provide any information at all? Yes it’s basic and straight forward, but there’s so much ambiguity to it. What qualifies as grains? When/where does dessert fit into the picture? Where are the serving suggestions? Dairy isn’t just the apparent glass of milk. Other sources include cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc. and all should be low-fat or fat-free.

This plate poses a substantial amount of questions. What those who designed it will tell you is that you can go to choosemyplate.gov for more information. Here is where you can get your questions answered.  That’s great.  But I thought a food model should answer questions, not create more of them.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss the Mediterranean’s Food Guide

English: Healthy nutrition pyramid with 7 to 9...

Image via Wikipedia

Pyramid. I’ve mentioned it on this blog before and now is as good a time as any to bring it out. The Mediterranean diet has been touted for many years for its emphasis on healthy oils, fish, and use of fresh produce.

As you can see, the pyramid is based on physical activity.  Daily consumed groups include grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, olive oil, cheese and yogurt.  Fish, poultry, eggs, and sweets should be consumed a couple of times a week and meat on a monthly basis.  Lastly, the pyramid recommends 6 glasses of water a day and wine in moderation.  I love how our new Food Plate didn’t even include healthy fats or sweets, yet somehow the Mediterraneans got both plus booze on theirs! What are we doing?!

In closing, the new Food Plate is not prefect.  It’s missing important pieces of information, but its design does make it more relevant. Visualizing what a proper meal should look like can come in handy to the average American wanting to make dietary adjustments. However, does this new Food Plate provide you with enough information?  Although it may be a step in the right direction, is there really enough there to guide or influence the way you eat?

Last week an article ran on the Huffington Post’s website, introducing the new Food Plate. The article was short and sweet. What I found interesting were the viewer comments. Gnomechomsky wrote:

“The USDA’s food plate chart doesn’t really make me want to eat healthier; it just makes me want to play Trivial Pursuit.”

I think we can all agree to that.

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