By Joanne Tehrani @eatingdrinknyc
Better plate than never? USDA steps up to the plate? On June 2nd, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a new symbol to replace the Food Pyramid as a guide for healthy eating for Americans called MyPlate. Why does this matter? This simple image will have an effect on national nutrition policy such as on the National School Lunch Program and likely on many food industries.
MyPlate is a simplified visual of what was recently published in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is a plate broken up in various colors to represent different food groups and recommended portion sizes. On the top right corner is a circular object that resembles a glass of milk to accompany a meal.
The original food pyramid that was released in 1991 was highly criticized by members of the nutrition and medical world. Most notably, Walter Willet, chair of Harvard University’s School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, and Meir Stampfer, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Both were quoted in an article in the Scientific American stating that the food pyramid “provides misleading guidance” and that it is “grossly flawed.”
The next Pyramid, known as MyPyramid launched in 2005 and was more confusing than the first. I always thought that the drawing of the stick figure which is shown to encourage exercise looked to me like she was running up to the section of foods that are meant to be limited: fats, oils and sweets. Who can blame her?
After many years and dollars, the USDA has settled on MyPlate. During the announcement of its unveiling, First Lady Michelle Obama gave it a glowing endorsement in an attempt to make it applicable to busy families. She stated: “This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we’re eating and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country. When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we’re already asked to be chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it’s tough to be a nutritionist, too. But we do have time to take a look at our kids’ 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.”
As a Registered Dietitian and communications professional, I think that MyPlate is a step in the right direction. It is easy to understand and has a few key messages that are loud and clear. These messages align with what author Michael Pollan has been saying for years now “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly from plant sources.”
Another positive is that it encourages the consumption of water over sugary drinks. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that around 37% of our total daily liquid calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. And, the average size portion of soft drink today is 20 ounces, up from 12 ounces thirty years ago.
What I would have liked to see included in MyPlate is a section that encourages healthy fats. According to the American Heart Association, fats high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), such as olive oil and avocados may prevent heart disease by lowering levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
The protein section might also be a little confusing for people. Without a science background many people might not be able to explain what a “protein” is. This is because it is not a type of food; it is a macronutrient, like carbohydrates and fats. And, people might not know that you can get protein from many other foods besides animal products. For instance whole grain foods, soy, nuts, cheese, green leafy vegetables, beans and eggs are all good sources of protein.
As PR/communications professionals, these issues might pose a new set of challenges for our clients and campaigns. It will also serve as an opportunity for greater education on the benefits of specific foods based on the growing body of scientific evidence out there. We should take the basic messages of MyPlate as an opportunity to expand consumer’s knowledge of specific foods that should go into those 5 sections of their plates, and what should be limited. This can be done by further tapping in to our relationships with the health professionals and by finding innovative ways to blend scientific data in to accessible information for all.
There is no simple solution that will combat the obesity epidemic in this country. According to the CDC, approximately 30% of adults and 20% of children are considered obese. Obesity leads to serious medical and psychological problems and will continue to place a strain on our healthcare system in terms of economic costs. There are several risk factors that contribute to the prevalence such as changes in trends in dietary intake, lack of physical activity, socioeconomics, and race/ethnicity. All aspects of obesity need to be taken into account when developing prevention tools and programs.
MyPlate isn’t a homerun, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Time will tell if it will help all Americans eat better, because we now need all of the help we can get.