The USDA came out with MyPlate earlier this year as a replacement to the well-known, and highly criticized, Food Guide Pyramid. Last week, the Harvard School of Public Health published their version of the "Plate", which is much closer to what the government should be advocating. So why can't the USDA get it right?
Let's take a look at the two plates...
This is the USDA'S plate.
On a positive note, moving away from the Pyramid to a Plate is a huge improvement. A plate is easier to understand and implement that a pyramid. "Fill half your plate with veggies and fruits" is a fantastic recommendation. But the rest of the plate falls short of sending a truly health-promoting message. The grains are not whole and the proteins are not specified. And dairy at each meal? That is entirely unnecessary, and some may say, even risky! The USDA is closer but continues to water-down the message that Americans so desperately need to hear--lay off the meat, nix the sausage, skip the cheese, put down the ice cream scoop, and make ALL of your grains whole!
Here is Harvard's plate. With text surrounding the plate and an appreciation of nutrition epidemiology, they get a stronger and healthier message across. Milk is replaced with water, the grains are whole, and proteins are described as "healthy" with instructions to limit and avoid red and processed meats. The researchers appreciate and depict the chronic disease risk that comes from over-consumption of red meat, processed meat, dairy and refined grains.So what's up with the USDA?Why do they continue to sweep these messages under the rug? Perhaps they underestimate Americans. Afterall, the implementation of MyPlate would be an improvement for many people. However, a diluted message won't do much to change the downward direction of American health. For example, increasing vegetables and fruits is a wonderful thing, but if the other half of the plate is still filled with meat, cheese, white bread and whole milk, how big of a dent will we make in our nation's health problems? Is it realistic to expect Americans to increase vegetables and fruits in our current food economy?Agricultural big-business carries a lot of weight in Washington. Their influence prevents statements like "eat less meat" and "drink less milk" and allows "whole grain" to blaze across cereal boxes full of refined grains, sugar and additives that have a sprinkling of whole grain added to them. Their influence buries and disguises recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by expressing the advice to eat less junk food, animal fats and sugar as "limit SoFAS". What does that mean? Limit time on the couch? That's what I thought when I first saw the recommendation. It actually stands for solid fats and added sugars. I had to look up "solid fats"; what do you think it refers to? Solid fats are the fats in meat, cheese, and butter. Why not just say, "eat less meat"?Here is Hana'sPlate. Perhaps oversimplified for a public health message, this is Hana'sPlate. This is an excellent teaching-tool when used to help individuals understand healthy eating. I recommend that you fill more than half your plate with veggies and fruits. The whole grains category needs expanding to include more than brown rice, oats, and whole grain breads and pastas. This segment of the plate also includes potatoes, peas, black beans and hummus. And the protein segment should emphasize health promoting protein-rich foods, such as fish and eggs.Check out the article on active.com that I wrote earlier this year to see how different lifestyles need different plates.Why do we need a Plate?Hana'sPlate is simply a guideline. There is not a perfect way to eat. Not every meal will look like this Plate. The Plate is meant to give some structure; to provide some framework when making food choices. But it is not a rigid guideline. Our diets are so much more than grains, proteins and vegetables. Our food is nourishment; it should be carefully prepared and slowly enjoyed. How do you illustrate that?
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