Like most children of the sixties and seventies, I grew up with the Four Basic Food Groups, fairly simple guidelines to follow, though some mocked these as Frozen, Canned, Bagged and Bottled! Then along came the Food Pyramid, which suggested our meals should be built upon a solid foundation of bread, cereal, rice and grains — this may explain why we all ate way too many carbohydrates, contributing to our nation’s growing waistline.
Times change and the pyramid is out; My Plate is in. The USDA introduced a new educational tool to encourage healthy eating. The colorful dinner plate — an icon divided into food groups — makes it easier to envision meal portions, by allotting approximately one-half of the plate to fruit and vegetables. “This is a quick simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods we’re eating,” said Michelle Obama, introducing the new guidelines.
The Food Pyramid, released in 1992, recommended incorporating 6 to 11 servings of bread, rice and cereal into your daily diet, along with 3 to 5 servings of vegetables, 2 to 4 servings of fruit, 2 to 3 servings of meat and poultry, and 2 to 3 servings of dairy. First, who can possibly remember that? We were being asked to recall if we were on our seventh or eighth serving of bread. Second, what exactly is a serving — it’s obviously different for child versus an adult. The pyramid was just too confusing to translate into everyday usage. Everyone knew about the widely publicized pyramid, but few regularly tabulated the required numbers of servings, and incorporated them into daily meals.
An updated version, My Pyramid, added a staircase with runner to the pyramid’s side — a reminder that exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Colorful bands rose up from food groups arrayed along the base, to converge at the pyramid’s apex. This version provided even less visual help in planning a meal.
Yet, the food pyramid lives on – in visuals from the European Union and Japan. Canada uses a rainbow icon, employing different colored arcs to symbolize the four basic food groups, with grains making up the largest, outer sector and meat and fish the smallest, inner arc.
But let’s take a closer look at the classic Food Pyramid: it placed grains, bread, pasta and cereals at the base, forming the foundation of nutrition – the food group recommended to make up the majority of our diet. In contrast, vegetables take up the largest sector on the My Plate icon, making the new recommendations far more amenable to vegetarians and vegans. Guidelines also emphasize that at least half of grains should be whole grains, rather than the refined grains of white bread and processed foods.
And yet, there is a discrepancy with federal policy: the bulk of U.S. food subsides continue to encourage cultivation and over-production of corn, soybean, wheat, and rice — with some of that grain going to animal feed. As a result, these foods are under-priced compared to vegetables. These are also the foods that end up in school lunches and fast food menus.
My Plate allots slightly less than one fourth of a plate to protein. This is simpler to remember than measuring out 3 ounces of meat. Notice that the more general term, protein, is used – widening options to include nuts, tofu, seeds or beans. The tip of the pyramid, devoted to fats, oils and sugars has been eliminated. Few of us need reminders to incorporate only small quantities of these into our diet.
But why the cup labeled Dairy off to the side? Do we really need a glass of milk with each meal? For one thing, a substantial fraction of adults are unable to digest milk products. In addition, there are other ways to get dairy – from cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Many green vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, provide sufficient calcium. The reason is, no doubt, due to pressure from the dairy industry. The USDA site does recommend switching to fat-free or low-fat milk. And the USDA did stand up to the soda industry — recommending water instead of sugary drinks. Nevertheless, dairy products should be included with the protein group – they should not comprise a separate category.
In the end, what really matters: Will MyPlate encourage healthier eating? Food choices all too often come down to a matter of convenience and cost. Microwavable meals offer speed and convenience over home-cooked meals. Due to government subsidies, cereals and sodas are cheap and readily available. Fast food restaurants are more accessible than farmer’s markets to many busy families. The high fat, salt and sugar content of a hamburger, fries and soda contribute to heart problems and diabetes in the general population.
My Plate is an improvement over the Food Pyramid, easier to implement. Yet, it has to compete with ubiquitous ads, many aimed at kids, offering an enticing array of candy, sodas, snacks, and sugary cereals.
When the choice comes down to Tony the Tiger versus the USDA, Who do you think kids will listen to?