MyPlate looks good but lacks substance

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Earlier this month, the USDA, department of agriculture and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, which will replace the food pyramid. Photos courtesy of USDA.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama unveiled MyPlate, a national nutritional guideline that would replace the food pyramid and bear the official seal of approval from the USDA. MyPlate was created in part by Obama’s campaign against obesity. It does away with the prescribed portion sizes for different food groups, instead using the visual of a dinner plate divided into four sections. Half of the plate is designated for fruits and vegetables, with grains and proteins making up the rest. To the side is a smaller circle for dairy products.

This redesign comes at a crucial point in American health statistics. In January, the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services released the seventh edition of their “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” which classifies more than one-third of children and two-thirds of adults in the United States as overweight or obese. MyPlate’s ascension and the food pyramid’s retirement reflect the current American dietary landscape and our predilection for visually vibrant and deceptively simple design. Together, they don’t necessarily communicate eating healthily as simply or as effectively as many may hope.

The U.S. first started growing concerned about the nutrition and health of Americans in the 1970s, following the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health. And yet, it seems no amount of information about dietary health presented in any fashion is getting through. We’re as an unhealthy as ever.

How is it in this constantly connected information age we’re still eating so poorly, even as the evidence is ostensibly right in front of us? Because all the nuances of choosing the right food and knowing what’s in them is too complex to be boiled down into a simple graphic.

The original design, created in 1992 and the most familiar to young people, has been maligned by health experts, such as Harvard nutritionist Dr. Walter Willet (a longtime critic of the USDA’s health guidelines), for being too vague and not based on the most up-to-date science. The revamped pyramid created in 2005, called MyPyramid, was essentially the same as the previous pyramid, just turned on its side. MyPyramid featured an even more abstract design — most public displays did not even include pictures of food. MyPyramid also included a stairs element alongside the pyramid that is supposed to symbolize the need for physical activity, but the ambiguity of the design made it difficult to convey that information.

Willet and the Harvard School of Public Health (where he is the chair of the department of nutrition) have been critical of the food pyramid and its incoherence, lack of current data and heavy influence from the food industry. That influence that is difficult to ignore because the food pyramids and MyPlate were created in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the advocacy of U.S. food producers.

While the influence may not be as overt in MyPlate, it still doesn’t do enough to provide the information most people need to make good decisions about the food they eat.

While it’s easy to see why the USDA and the first lady wanted to streamline the process of choosing your food as much as possible for Americans with busy lives, MyPlate may be too simplified. Based purely on the visual of the plate, it would seem that, as long as you fulfill the proper portions requirement, anything you choose is fair game: there’s no differentiation as to what’s best within in each food group.

For example, while MyPlate recommends about a fourth of your plate consist of protein, not all proteins are created equally and some are healthier than others. Harvard outlines how red and processed meats are unhealthy compared to proteins such as fish, poultry and beans.

Despite years of scientific research and reporting, there continues to be a disparity between what we know to be healthy and the actual quality of the food we produce. A paper, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 2010 and conducted by doctors from the National Cancer Institute, concluded that the quality of the current U.S. food supply is insufficient to meet federal recommendations.

This information is all readily available, but often densely packed. The Internet is filled with helpful and relevant health information, but as the first lady notes, most people don’t have the time or interest to track that information down and implement it. Graphics like MyPlate are created for their ease of use and understanding.

While the goals of MyPlate are well-intentioned and admirable, it glosses over crucial information about dietary health. The easiest way to communicate what foods are healthy may not be in a colorful graph or chart, but in old-fashioned education. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of School Health, middle school students instructed in a comprehensive healthy lifestyle education program showed improvement in their eating behaviors and perhaps most promisingly, the kids felt more confident in their ability to eat healthily.

Published on Monday, June 20, 2011 as: MyPlate guidelines visually attractive, lacking information