New food plate icon: will it change how you eat?

In an effort to simplify the message it gives the public on healthy eating, the federal government today unveiled a new icon to replace the complicated and confusing food pyramid: It’s a plate divided into four sections, with fruits and vegetables on one half and protein and grains on the other. A circle for dairy — indicating a glass of milk or container of yogurt — rests to the right of the plate.

“The new icon is simple and easy to understand, with more emphasis placed on fruits and vegetables,” said U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin in a statement . It’s designed, she said, to “help individuals and families make healthier meal choices.”


First lady Michelle Obama, who was involved in the “MyPlate” initiative as part of her efforts to prevent childhood obesity, said in a statement that it’s important for parents to scan their children’s plates. “As long as they’re 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.”

Outside experts generally agree that a plate is far better than a pyramid in helping folks visualize what the composition of their meals should look like. “I’ve been doing this for years with my clients — showing them how to divide their plate,” said Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician at Boston University.

She added that eating more produce, which ounce for ounce has fewer calories than meat or starches, can be an effective weight loss strategy for the two-thirds of Americans who are overweight, because it “fills you up before it fills you out.”

Of course, looking at the plate symbol alone might still make it tough for Americans to determine what to eat. They have to click on each symbol on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which designed the plate to replace its pyramid — in order to identify healthful protein and grain choices.


They also won’t see any room for dessert on the plate and no mention of oils or dietary fats of any kind. (Foods with both protein and fat — like nuts and red meat — fall into the protein category.)

While nutrition researcher Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard School of Public Health, said the new plate is a “step in the right direction” with “reasonable proportions,” it doesn’t provide enough information to really guide Americans. “They need simple information but not so simple that most important information is lost.”

He said he’d like to see some mention of dietary fats — which ones to choose like olive oil — and which to avoid like the trans fats in margarine and deep fried foods. And he thinks that protein choices shouldn’t all be listed equally since nuts, fish, and skinless chicken breast are more healthful overall than red meat, even cuts that are lean.

The emphasis on a dairy serving at every meal, he added, is also “misguided” since the latest research indicates that increasing our calcium intake won’t do much to prevent bone fractures later in life.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — an advocacy group that promotes vegetarian diets — also objected to the dairy component, stating that “it is unfortunate that the USDA’s MyPlate creates a small circle for dairy products, which are a major source of fat and cholesterol in the American diet.”


While expressing excitement about the new plate at a press conference held at the USDA this morning, the first lady emphasized that “the new icon isn’t the only thing we should be doing” to combat obesity and that the government planned to “build momentum around ‘MyPlate’ with a coordinated strategy” to get Americans to move more and to make fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable.


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