Is USDA’s New MyPlate a Better Plate?
The new USDA dietary guidelines certainly offer a better visual clue to what should be on your plate, but is it any easier to understand what you should actually eat?
Most people who are trying to “watch what they eat” still have a really hard time knowing exactly what that should be. It’s understandable given the glut of conflicting and ever-changing nutrition information that constantly encircles us. Which is why the new USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guidance System, now called MyPlate, just might set out some ground rules we’ve all been waiting for.
I admit I’ve been a critic of USDA’s previous attempts to guide Americans diets. The old Food Pyramids were baffling, portion sizes were skewed and inconsistent and there was a huge emphasis on refined grains and dairy. Why on earth would 2 cups of cottage cheese or 1-1/2 cups of ice cream be considered a healthy portion? Or why, among the advice for “grains” (on the original pyramid), is rice dismissed as a weak sister to breads, muffins, bagels and cereals?
Not only that, but the suggestion that 6-11 servings of these refined grains be consumed in a day (which could equate to 3 bagels, 6 muffins or 11 slices of bread) surely had its effect on an obesity epidemic that has been worsening for years. The appearance that the food industry had driven the guidelines was often criticized. The later pyramid in 2005 made some concessions to these criticisms but for many the guidelines still did not go far enough toward promoting better eating habits, and users still found the advice unclear.
Enter MyPlate, launched earlier this month, offering a far clearer visual reference for what we should be eating. The new icon clearly favors fruits and vegetables, the combination of which fill half the plate with veggies taking the stronger role. Proteins make up a little less than one-quarter of the plate (exact proportions are somewhat difficult to discern) with grains making up the remaining wedge. Dairy, shown in a circle off to the side, plays a smaller role than in previous guidelines. I find it a little confusing that both fruits and vegetables share the plate as if we are to consume both at a sitting, but as I’ve often advised mothers with small children to find a balance of these foods within a given day, the same concept can apply to adults.
Wandering around the new MyPlate website I find many things I like as well as a few to which I still take exception. The advice to make only half of the grains you consume whole grains still irks me, but the advice on the Grains page does promote whole grains and provides what I think is very good advice on how to start substituting whole grains for refined, how to identify whole grains in products (and how to identify products that may look like the real thing but aren’t). There is still a lot of emphasis here on breads and flours but the nod to brown rice and some other more commonly available grains is apparent. It’s a start.
I’m a little annoyed that 100% vegetable juice is suggested as a vegetable serving on the Vegetables page. That’s not a criticism of those who do their own juicing of fresh vegetables, but a concern that many might view that as a license to substitute processed vegetable juices for fresh raw or cooked varieties which contain essential dietary fiber. Juices are high-calorie and can be easily over-consumed so I would have liked to see a word of caution there – there is none. I am however pleased that the listing of commonly eaten vegetables – that we are urged to eat a variety of – include bok choy, collards, kale, asparagus, cauliflower and eggplant as well as protein-rich chickpeas, lentils and black and white beans (which also show up on the Protein page).
The Fruits page doesn’t supply anything surprising except, like vegetables, suggests that 100% fruit juice can be considered a serving. As many parents know, juices are high in calories (even the ones without added sugar) and can be consumed in large amounts easily without providing the filling component and dietary benefit of fiber. Again, I would urge caution here. Fresh fruits are always a better option.
The Dairy page concerned me at first. While the focus here is to ensure we are getting enough calcium in our diets, there too many processed and high-sugar foods on the list for my taste. I’m not a fan of flavored milk as a regular beverage for that reason (as a treat, I’m okay with it). I was looking for the caveat and it’s there. The page cautions that the added sugars and solid fats in sweetened milk products count “against your maximum limit for "empty calories." I like the matrix they’ve devised for how many of these you should limit yourself to in a day. I think it’s safe to say that most of us, based on our age, are probably consuming way more that these limits.
Lots of good information populates the Protein page. There are a huge number of choices here for all types of diets with a nice emphasis on plant foods such as beans, legumes (they call them “peas”), nuts and seeds as well a a sensible push for consumption of seafood. Good advice also on watching the sodium content in processed meats. I would caution frequent fast-food eaters to watch this in restaurants too. High sodium of low-quality is all too common and its health effects are well-known.
There’s a great deal more on MyPlate to explore and I encourage you to visit. I like that in the upper right corner of each Food Group page there are additional links to help you understand how much of that food is a portion size, what the health implications of those foods are and some recipes. The deeper you go, the more interesting (although admittedly sometimes confusing) information is made available.
Over the summer, I’ll be unpacking these new guidelines in more detail to give you more substantive and readily applicable advice on how to incorporate these guidelines into your life. So stay tuned.
Mary Porter is a nutrition educator and counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. Her company, A Better Plate, works with corporations and individuals teaching the art and practice of nourishment. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org