Harvard’s own version of healthy plate draws criticism
When the federal government unveiled its food plate icon in June to replace its ridiculously confusing food pyramid, nutrition researcher Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told me that the new plate was a “step in the right direction’’ with “reasonable proportions,’’ but that it doesn’t provide enough information to really guide Americans. He also wasn’t thrilled with the glass of milk on the side of the plate that implied a serving of dairy with every meal.
Willett and his Harvard colleagues last week unveiled their own version of the healthy plate that replaces milk with water and includes a small bottle of oil on the side to signify heart-healthier fats.
It’s also text heavy with explicit instructions - not included in the modified graphic shown here - to limit dairy, trans fats, soda, and fruit juices. It also says you can’t count potatoes or french fries as vegetables and should eat whole grains like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta.
The government’s version is far simpler, with no words beyond “fruits, grains, vegetables, protein, and dairy’’ - aiming to get us to focus on the visual portions rather than the nitty-gritty details; for those, you would need to head to its website.
A larger issue, said Willett in a press conference last week, was the politics involved in the government’s decision to include milk and not distinguish between the types of protein on the plate. The US Department of Agriculture, which developed the food plate, also represents the interests of dairy, potato, and cattle farmers, and Willett contended that the resulting icon lacks detailed information so as not to offend these groups.
“It’s probably a mix of science and powerful influence from agricultural interests,’’ he said, “and this isn’t a good recipe for healthy eating’’ since red meat and dairy foods tend to be rich in heart-damaging saturated fat, while potatoes lead to elevated blood sugar levels.
Of course, government officials said at the time that they were looking for simplicity and ease of use. First lady Michelle Obama has summed the plate up this way: As long as it’s “half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we’re golden. That’s how easy it is.’’
I asked New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, author of “Food Politics,’’ how she thought the Harvard plate compared with the government’s, and she said while it took care of “some of the ambiguities of the USDA version,’’ it contains “nutritionally annoying’’ things such as not allowing for healthful sources of dairy like fat-free milk or low-fat yogurt.
“I agree that milk is not an essential nutrient,’’ Nestle added, but wondered why people were told to limit their intake even of low-fat dairy foods to one to two servings a day.
Eggs are nowhere to be found on the plate, which Nestle also criticized, since they’re a rich source of protein. Plus, she added, there’s no reason to lump all potatoes together since some, including sweet potatoes, are chock-full of nutrients and don’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
“Let me say in sympathy that these kinds of guides are exceedingly difficult to do,’’ she said. “I think the emphasis on diet quality - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats - is terrific but I’m also a foodie. I care a lot about the way food tastes and its diversity. I want more room for both on my plates.’’
Ted- wrote: This is all well and good, but I went essentially carb-free last March, lost 46 pounds, lowered my cholesterol and triglycerides, [went] from high-risk to diabetes to essentially none, have had no problem keeping the weight off, and have never felt better.
jkgooch wrote: Ultimately, no eating guide is immune from political influence. As between the two, however, Harvard’s is far less compromised than the USDA’s.
icpshootyz wrote: I like this idea because I don’t think the gov’t is entirely honest about the influence of Big Agriculture. But like Michelle Obama said in the article, getting people to just make half of their daily food intake fruits and vegetables is really a huge step.