Today, first lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin announced the USDA's new healthy eating icon.
Putting the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in pictorial form, a new “MyPlate” graphic replaces the USDA's widely criticized 2005 “My Pyramid” graphic.
The 2005 My Pyramid icon depicted six colored stripes – representing major food groups – radiating down from the apex, with a stick figure running up stairs on the left slope, to convey exercise.
Many felt it was a step backward from the 1992 pyramid … which at least, as nutrition nabob Marion Nestle said, “… clearly conveyed the idea that it was better to eat foods from the bottom of the pyramid than from the top.” (GOOD 2010)
As the USDA said last month, “The 2010 White House Child Obesity Task Force called for simple, actionable advice to equip consumers with information to help them make healthy food choices … consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Text provided on the USDA MyPlate web site echoes the 2010 Guidelines in making some truly progressive suggestions:
Enjoy your food, but eat less.
Avoid oversized portions.
Foods to Increase
Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
Make at least half your grains whole grains.
Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
Foods to Reduce
Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers.
Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
For the most part, experts say the new MyPlate graphical guide agency does a pretty good job of reflecting the advances made in the 2010 Guidelines.
Progressive nutritionists generally praise the plate
Many experts have been quoted as liking the clarity with which MyPlate translates the 2010 Dietary Guidelines into an easy-to-grasp graphic … one that shows how much space each food group should occupy in an average meal.
As Walter C. Willett, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health told The New York Times, “It's going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information.” (Neumann W, 5/27/2011)
Still, some high-profile advocates for smart diets expressed ambivalence about the new diet-guidance graphic.
For example, as nutrition professor Marion Nestle, Ph.D., of New York University told The New York Times, “It's better than the  pyramid but that's not saying a lot.” (Neumann W, 6/2/2011)
But Nestle struck a more positive note in The Los Angeles Times: “The Department of Agriculture has a long history of being in bed with the food industry, and this is moving beyond that. It's not moving as far as I would like, but it's pretty courageous.” (Khan A, 6/2/2011)
Like many of her peers, Nestle had criticized the 2005 “step” pyramid as confusing. In fact, as she said last year, “The 1992 pyramid was pretty good overall … [but] … it overemphasized carbohydrate foods (breads, cereals, grains) … I'd like to see a pyramid that emphasizes fruits and vegetables more than grains.”
Nestle got part of her wish, since fruits and vegetables occupy half of the MyPlate graphic … about 20 and 30 percent of the plate, respectively.
However, the MyPlate graphic does not cut the proportion of grains in American meals by much, versus the 2005 and 1992 pyramids.
Given the power of the “Got Milk?” lobby, it comes as no surprise that dairy foods got their own circle to the side of the plate.
Dairy could have been lumped in with other, unnamed protein foods. After all, eggs and hard cheeses contain ample protein.
But one can argue that milk products deserve their own category, for two reasons:
Cultured dairy foods like yogurt and kefir offer special, “probiotic” health benefits.
Unlike meats, poultry, beans, and fish, dairy foods contain naturally occurring starches and sugars.
Fish gets a further boost
Reflecting the increased stress placed on seafood in the 2010 Guidelines, the written guidance provided on the USDA MyPlate website poses the question, “Why is it important to eat 8 ounces of seafood per week?”, and provides these answers:
Seafood contains a range of nutrients, notably the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. Eating about 8 ounces per week of a variety of seafood contributes to the prevention of heart disease. Smaller amounts of seafood are recommended for young children.
Seafood varieties that are commonly consumed in the United States that are higher in EPA and DHA and lower in mercury include salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel (not king mackerel, which is high in mercury).
The health benefits from consuming seafood outweigh the health risk associated with mercury, a heavy metal found in seafood in varying levels.
We were pleased to see that the recipe sheet provided on the MyPlate website included a recipe for Salmon Patties … but we've got our own super-easy Salmon Patties Meal Kit, which provides our own wild salmon and organic ingredients.
Choose seafood at least twice a week as the main protein food. Look for seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, and herring.
Skip or limit the breading on meat, poultry, or fish. Breading adds calories. It will also cause the food to soak up more fat during frying.
The USDA's advice to avoid breaded, fat-fried foods also makes sense for a reason left unsaid: namely, the growing evidence that deep-fried fish is actually bad for heart health.
This is because the breading used for deep-frying meats and fish soaks up loads of vegetable oil, which is high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Americans already consume far too many omega-6s, which tend to promote inflammation and interfere with absorption of omega-3s.
GOOD. Winner Announced: Design a Better Food Pyramid. December 20, 2010. Accessed at http://www.good.is/post/winner-announced-design-a-better-food-pyramid/
Khan A. USDA to reshape how we see dietary nutrition. June 2, 2011. Accessed at http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-food-pyramid-20110602,0,6436170.story
Neumann W. Goodbye Food Pyramid, Hello Dinner Plate. The New York Times, May 27, 2011. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/28/health/nutrition/28plate.html
Nuemann W. Nutrition Plate Unveiled to Replace the Food Pyramid. The New York Times, June 2, 2011. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/business/03plate.html
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Accessed at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/