06.03.11

Can MyPlate Make Us Healthy?

The USDA replaced the food pyramid with a new nutritional icon called MyPlate. Foodies and nutritionists, from Padma Lakshmi to the South Beach Diet creator, weigh in on the redesign.

The USDA unveiled its new food pyramid on Thursday, and as it turns out, it’s not a pyramid at all. The decades old nutritional icon has been replaced with an easier-to-understand symbol: a plate, divided into sections for fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. The new symbol has been in development for two years and comes with a new website:choosemyplate.gov.

Why the change? Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said the old pyramid was accurate, but too complex to be useful. First Lady Michelle Obama, who helped reveal “MyPlate,” said, “Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving … But we do have time to look at our kids’ plates.” And Robert Post of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion explained, “It’s grabbing the consumer’s attention that we are after this time, not making it so complicated that perhaps it is a turnoff. There is something really inviting about this familiar setting for meal time.

In the new graphic, fruits and vegetables take up half of the plate; while grains occupy slightly more than one-quarter of the plate, and proteins slightly less than one-quarter. A separate dish (or perhaps a glass?) is for dairy. The servings are not meant to be strictly proportional, because everyone has their own set of nutritional needs. Rather, the new symbolis based on dietary guidelines that were released in January.

Sadly for sweets lovers, desserts are noticeably absent from MyPlate. ButVilsack insists he’s not anti-cookie. “We’re not suggesting they should not ever have a cookie or a treat or dessert or whatever…We are not telling people what to eat, we are giving them a guide.”

The Daily Beast asked some foodies and nutrition experts about whether MyPlate is an improvement over the old food pyramid, and what they think it still gets wrong. See their responses below.


It's refreshing to see an easy visual guide to good nutrition and it's a great reminder of how much our daily intake should be plant based. I'm unclear as to why dairy is off to the side when it should be included as a protein. But all in all, the fact that we're all talking about it and thinking about good nutrition is in itself a triumph for the first lady and the rest of us.
—Padma Lakshmi, host of Bravo’s Top Chef

The first food pyramid was a disaster that helped lead to our whole epidemic of obesity because it put at the base all the grains including starches, and didn’t differentiate between processed and whole grains, which I think is one of the main causes of the epidemic (along with fast food and sedentary behavior). And I think for the general population, and particularly for kids, maximizing fruits and vegetables is so important, and it seems like this is a simple, clear way to communicate that.
Arthur Agatston, preventive cardiologist and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and creator of The South Beach Diet.

MyPlate is mainly a healthy eating guide, but I also use a plate approach for helping people lose weight because it makes understanding relative portion sizes much easier. That said, I’d like to see some details. For example: What is the size of this plate? I recently bought new dinner plates and the smallest I could find were 11 inches across, compared to nine inches for my old ones. That might not sound like a lot, but it translates to a 50 percent bigger plate area. If you fill that plate you get 50 percent more calories even if you are following the directions just so. And are they going to talk about what to do about foods that don’t come on plates? Things eaten on the run contain tons of calories even if you don’t bring your china with you. Likewise, liquids can’t be partitioned into plate quarters at all but provide about 22 percent of daily calories in America today, and are almost certainly one of the reasons for the obesity epidemic. So yes, I do like MyPlate, but I’d like a side of good advice for how to make it really effective as a calorie-control tool.
Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University and author of The "I" Diet weight-loss program.

The new design is a big improvement.  For one thing, it will be easier to teach. Its main message is simple: eat your veggies! Eat whichever foods you like, and don’t worry about numbers of servings. Just fit the foods on the plate where they belong, and use a reasonably sized plate. The issues here are critical. We have a huge obesity problem in this country that threatens our national security and health-care systems. If this helps people understand what a healthy diet ought to look like, it will be performing an important public service.

Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, New York University

My first impression? I was really happy to see a plate, instead of a pyramid. I’ve been using a plate in my practice for years, to help my patients choose healthier foods. And most importantly, the new icon shows that half your plate should be fruits and veggies, which most people do not eat enough of. They’re packed with nutrients and low in calories, so they’re the perfect foods to eat more of.

It’s also great that a quarter of the new plate is protein, since people sometimes omit this group and wonder why they’re still hungry (protein digests slower than carbs and helps with satiety.) And I like the quarter of grains, since too many people tend to make their entire plate carbohydrates. If they choose whole grains (USDA recommends that at least half of our grains are whole grains), they’ll be getting the many health benefits of fiber. Finally, I was pleased to see low-fat dairy included, since so many people, especially children, aren’t meeting their daily calcium and vitamin D needs.

That said, I have a couple of problems with the new design: One, it doesn’t include healthy fats, which leaves people uneducated about fats—like avocados, olive oil, and nuts—that are recommended as part of our diets. And two, it doesn’t clarify what foods count as protein. Many of my patients—and I’m sure many, many others—don't realize that beans, eggs, and tofu count as protein as much as a piece of chicken or red meat.

I think the new icon is a great starting place, but educators still need to get out there and teach people how to use it. It’s a great tool, but only if it’s actually used. I think one of the places we really need to begin is in the classroom. Children need to be brought up with an understanding of what a healthy plate looks like, long before they enter high school. Yes, there’s a lot of information available on the USDA’s website, but consumers need more direct, face-to-face education for it to make a difference in their lives.

Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, author of The Small Change Diet and a registered dietitian with a private practice in Manhattan