USDA replaces food pyramid with ‘MyPlate’ in hopes to promote healthier eating

After decades of the food pyramid, Americans can look to a new model for healthy eating, ‘MyPlate’, the new symbol of proper nutrition from the USDA which was announced Thursday. As Brian Vastag reported:

After devoting decades to designing a pyramid, then honing and refining that design, the nation’s nutrition experts have settled on what they believe is the perfect geometry to represent what we should eat — a plate.

Arriving in the midst of an obesity epidemic, this new at-a-glance guide to healthful eating is meant to remind consumers to limit heavy foods and beef up on the greens.

“MyPlate” promotes fruits and vegetables, which cover half the circle. Grains occupy an additional quarter, as do proteins such as meat, fish and poultry. A glass of milk rests to the side. Desserts have been banished to the desert.

At a media-heavy roll-out Thursday morning at USDA headquarters, the famously foodie first lady presided. With the White House vegetable garden in full leaf, Michelle Obama armed her crusade against the country’s obesity problem with what nutritionists and food lobbyists are already calling a powerful image.

“It’s brilliant in its simplicity,” said Robb MacKie, head of the American Bakers Association, which represents bread makers. “It’s something the average American can look at and get a visual feel for how they can fill up a plate at a meal.”

To avoid upstaging the first lady, the USDA made a select group of academics and food industry representatives sign non-disclosure forms at a private unveiling of the image three weeks ago, several sources said. Still, word leaked, leading to early rave reviews from hard-to-please corners of the foodieverse – and sighs of relief that the food plate’s predecessor, USDA’s confusing MyPyramid, had finally been dismantled.

USDA officials have said the old ‘MyPyramid’ was too complex and did not give people an easy way to compare their meals to the ideal balance recommended. As AP explained:

USDA officials say the pyramid was tired out, overly complex and tried to communicate too many different nutrition facts at once. The new symbol, unveiled Thursday at the department with first lady Michelle Obama in attendance, is simple and gives diners an idea of what should be on their plates when they sit down at the dinner table.

“It’s grabbing the consumers’ attention that we are after this time, not making it so complicated that perhaps it is a turnoff,” said Robert Post of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. “There is something really inviting about this familiar setting for meal time.”

The department is planning to use social media as one way of grabbing attention, posting advice every day on Twitter, for example. The accompanying website, choosemyplate.gov, will be written on the chart. It will eventually feature interactive tools that help people manage their weight and track exercise.

Post, who has spent two years developing the plate and the website, said the new chart is designed to be “more artistic and attractive” and to serve as a visual cue for diners.

Gone are any references to sugars, fats or oils, and what was once a category called “meat and beans” is now simply “proteins.” Next to the plate is a blue circle for dairy, which could be a glass of milk or a food such as cheese or yogurt.

Even though the plate is divided into four sections, the servings aren’t supposed to be proportional. Every person has different nutritional needs, based on age, health and other factors. The symbol, based on a new set of dietary guidelines released in January, is a general guideline.

‘MyPlate’ has thus far been well received, especially in comparison to the older model. As Jennifer LaRue Huget reported:

A huge improvement over the baffling MyPyramid icon that it replaces, MyPlate is as easy as pie to understand; its designers smartly saved the fine print about how to actually fill the wedge-shaped spots on the plate for the Web site, ChooseMyPlate.gov. MyPlate, like the Food Pyramids before it, is meant to convey the key messages of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in a simple, consumer-friendly fashion.

It’s no fun, finding nothing to be snarky about with this particular use of federal funds. But, really, this plate thing, though not all that original, makes sense. And it probably will prove to have legs. In her remarks at the news conference at which MyPlate was introduced this morning, first lady Michelle Obama pointed out that the icon is “simple enough for children to understand, even at the elementary school level. They can learn to use this tool now and use it for the rest of their lives.”

Obama also said, “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 a 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.”

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A Brief History of USDA Food Guides

A Brief History of USDA Food Guides

Download as PDF

Many individuals remember the Pyramids – the Food Guide Pyramid and MyPyramid – USDA’s food guidance symbols before MyPlate, but not many people realize just how long USDA’s history of providing science-based dietary guidance to the American public actually is. Starting over a century ago, USDA has empowered Americans to make healthy food choices by providing a number of publications, food guidance symbols, and, more recently, a suite of interactive online tools. Explore the history of USDA’s food guidance on the timeline below.

1916 to 1930s: “Food for Young Children” and “How to Select Food”

  • Established guidance based on food groups and household measures

  • Focus was on “protective foods”

1940s: A Guide to Good Eating (Basic Seven)

  • Foundation diet for nutrient adequacy

  • Included daily number of servings needed from each of seven food groups

  • Lacked specific serving sizes

  • Considered complex

1956 to 1970s: Food for Fitness, A Daily Food Guide (Basic Four)

  • Foundation diet approach—goals for nutrient adequacy

  • Specified amounts from four food groups

  • Did not include guidance on appropriate fats, sugars, and calorie intake

1979: Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide

  • Developed after the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States were released

  • Based on the Basic Four, but also included a fifth group to highlight the need to moderate intake of fats, sweets, and alcohol

1984: Food Wheel: A Pattern for Daily Food Choices

  • Total diet approach – Included goals for both nutrient adequacy and moderation

  • Five food groups and amounts formed the basis for the Food Guide Pyramid

  • Daily amounts of food provided at three calorie levels

  • First illustrated for a Red Cross nutrition course as a food wheel

1992: Food Guide Pyramid

  • Total diet approach—goals for both nutrient adequacy and moderation

  • Developed using consumer research, to bring awareness to the new food patterns

  • Illustration focused on concepts of variety, moderation, and proportion

  • Included visualization of added fats and sugars throughout five food groups and in the tip

  • Included range for daily amounts of food across three calorie levels

2005: MyPyramid Food Guidance System

  • Introduced along with updating of Food Guide Pyramid food patterns for the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including daily amounts of food at 12 calorie levels

  • Continued “pyramid” concept, based on consumer research, but simplified illustration. Detailed information provided on website “MyPyramid.gov”

  • Added a band for oils and the concept of physical activity

  • Illustration could be used to describe concepts of variety, moderation, and proportion

2011: MyPlate

  • Introduced along with updating of USDA food patterns for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

  • Different shape to help grab consumers’ attention with a new visual cue

  • Icon that serves as a reminder for healthy eating, not intended to provide specific messages

  • Visual is linked to food and is a familiar mealtime symbol in consumers’ minds, as identified through testing

  • “My” continues the personalization approach from MyPyramid

For more information:
Welsh S, Davis C, Shaw A. A brief history of food guides in the United States. Nutrition Today November/December 1992:6-11.
Welsh S, Davis C, Shaw A. Development of the Food Guide Pyramid. Nutrition Today November/December 1992:12-23.
Haven J, Burns A, Britten P, Davis C. Developing the Consumer Interface for the MyPyramid Food Guidance System. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 2006, 38: S124–S135.

June 2, 2011 — A colorful four-part plate, with a side dish of dairy, has replaced the 19-year-old food pyramid as the icon of the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

The new icon, called “My Plate,” is split into four sections — red for fruits, green for vegetables, orange for grains, and purple for protein — with a separate blue section for dairy on the side.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the icon at a news conference today. He said the food pyramid was “simply too complex to serve as a quick and easy guide for American families.”

At the news conference, first lady Michelle Obama praised My Plate as “a wonderful, kid-friendly tool” that’s practical for busy families.

“What’s more simple than a plate?” she asked. “I’m confident that families will find this useful. They can start using this today.”

The Obamas are already doing so. “Trust me: We are implementing this in our household,” Obama said.

The icon represents more than the currently recommended diet. It’s part of a drastic change. The old plan was to provide information. The new plan is to actively change American eating behavior, using all the tools of modern persuasion.

“The centerpiece of the program is this next-generation food icon,” Robert C. Post, PhD, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) center for nutrition policy and promotion, tells WebMD. “The icon is the visual cue to get to online resources, to online media, and to unified nutrition messages from public- and private-sector efforts.”

Expect a barrage of messages and reminders from the food industry, nutrition gurus, chefs, schools, nonprofit agencies, and every government agency with anything at all to say about nutrition or health. Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and blogs will trumpet the healthy diet program.

Eating is only half the picture. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program will take the lead in motivating Americans to get more exercise.

(Get a printable image of the new My Plate with options for your meals.)

The crumbling Food Pyramid and its hip successor (MyPyramid) fell into oblivion yesterday, eroded by the stinging winds of science. Their replacement? A quartered plate called—wait for it—MyPlate that was designed to visually convey the elements of healthy eating to Americans of all ages.

The new icon consists of a white plate divided into four segments: green for vegetables, red for fruits, orange for grains, and purple for protein. Dairy has a prominent place, sitting where a glass of water should be. The hope is that the plate will nudge Americans away from meals dominated by meat and starch and towards meals made up mostly of plant-based foods.

The original Food Guide Pyramid debuted in 1992. It was built on shaky scientific ground. Over the next few years, research from around the world chipped away at the healthy eating message in the pyramid’s base (refined carbohydrates), the middle (meat and milk), and the tip (fats).

The Pyramid got an extreme makeover in 2005. To create MyPyramid, it was flipped on its side (so no food type was on the bottom, and perceived as “worse”), painted rainbow colors, was given a stick figure sprinting up its side, and stripped of any useful information. The million-dollar makeover was a step backward.

MyPlate, by comparison, is a good move. It offers information on portion sizes and sends the message that a balanced meal should be at least half vegetables and fruits.

“Clearly MyPlate will be better than MyPyramid,” nutrition expert Walter C. Willett told The Nutrition Source. “But the most important issues are in the details that are not captured by the icon. What type of grain? What sources of proteins? What fats are used to prepare the vegetables and the grains?” Willett, who chairs the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, has been a long-time critic of the Food Pyramid. His best-selling book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, details how and why the old pyramids actually contribute to unhealthy eating. (Full disclosure—I co-wrote the book.) Willett’s Healthy Eating Pyramid is based on up-to-date nutrition science.

MyPlate doesn’t show that whole grains are better for you than refined, rapidly digested grains, or that fish and beans are better protein choices than red meat. It doesn’t give any guidance that eating more unsaturated and omega-3 fats is good for health, as is cutting back on saturated fats from meat and dairy.

One thing missing from the place mat is a garbage or compost can for the sugary baked goods, breakfast cereals, and drinks, and the salty processed foods and snacks, that make up a big chunk of the average American’s daily caloric intake.

Although the USDA is trying to make MyPlate sound new. It isn’t. The New American Plate, which the American Institute for Cancer Research developed in 1999, uses an almost identical plate icon to encourage people to eat more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. In the United Kingdom, the Eatwell Plate has served as a pictorial guide to healthy eating.

In spite of their shortcomings, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate are better than their prior versions. MyPlate is worth teaching in schools and printing on cereal boxes. Whether this will help stem Americans’ frightful eating habits is anyone’s guess.

Courtesy of USDA

So long, pyramid. Welcome, MyPlate! First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled on Thursday the government’s new symbol for healthy eating, a colorful plate divided into the basic food groups, which will officially replace the well-recognized but perplexing food pyramid.

With Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the First Lady announced the new nutrition icon, known as MyPlate, as part of her ongoing campaign against obesity.

(More on TIME.com: The Sad State of American Kids’ Food Environments)

The plate, which is based on the nutrition advice contained in the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is quartered into sections: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Half the plate is taken up by fruits and vegetables. Another smaller circle appears next to the plate representing dairy. Health officials have high hopes that the simple, clear “visual cue” will prompt consumers to make healthier eating choices — something that the decades-old food pyramid largely failed to do.

1992 Food Pyramid | Courtesy of USDA

Even Secretary Vilsack said that he had never been able to make sense of the pyramid — first introduced in 1992, then revamped in 2005 — before taking his post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “The reality is that is a really complex symbol,” Vilsack said during the press conference announcing the plate icon on Thursday. “It has a lot of good information, but the reality is that it’s too complex a symbol to translate well to meals for Americans.”

MyPlate, by contrast, is a “simple, visual, research-based icon that is a clear, unmistakable message about portion size,” Vilsack said.

(More on TIME.com: PHOTOS: A Worldwide Day’s Worth of Food)

Critics of the original pyramid, which placed foods that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet (grains, fruits and vegetables) at its base, with foods that should be eaten more sparingly (meat, dairy, fat, sugar) at the narrower top, said it was not easily translatable to most Americans’ dining habits. For one thing, it told people to eat a specific number of “servings” — an inscrutable measure of food — of each food group per day. Further, the pyramid did not distinguish between healthy foods like brown rice or fish and less healthy foods like white rice or sausage. (Not to mention that the design was tweaked in order to please agricultural and meat lobbies, to which the USDA is responsible.)

The revamped pyramid, which turned the original’s bricks into colorful vertical stripes representing food groups, and added a stick figure running up the side to note the importance of exercise, was even more widely ridiculed for offering no meaningful information.

2005 Food Pyramid | Courtesy of USDA

The circular MyPlate departs from the original symbol’s shape and better represents how the average person eats — on a plate. “What’s more useful than a plate? What’s more simple than a plate?” said the First Lady during the press conference. “After a long day of work, parents are asked to be the chef, the referee, the clean-up crew. You name it, we’re on it. We can’t be nutritionists as well.”

(More on TIME.com: New Dietary Guidelines Show Politics Still Trumps Science)

The First Lady admitted that even she did not know how much protein was in an ounce of meat. “We can’t be expected to measure three ounces of chicken or look up a portion size of rice or broccoli.”

The government’s updated dietary guidelines released in January suggest that Americans reduce their consumption of salt, sugar and fat; they also advise people increase fruits, veggies and fish. MyPlate reflects those guidelines, showing vegetables and fruits as a bigger proportion of the plate than grains, for example.

However, the dietary guidelines also urge Americans to eat less overall — a message that health officials haven’t yet addressed. The New York Times reports:

Officials said they planned to use the plate in a campaign to communicate essential dietary guidelines to consumers, emphasizing one message at a time for best effect.

The first part of the campaign will encourage people to make half their plate fruit and vegetables. Later phases of the campaign will instruct consumers to avoid oversize portions, enjoy their food but eat less of it and to drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Nutritionists said the plate is a step up from the pyramid. “It’s better than the pyramid but that’s not saying a lot,” Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, told the Times. She said that including a large section of the plate labeled “protein” is confusing and unnecessary, because it does not clarify that grains and dairy are important sources of protein and because most Americans already get more protein than they need, the Times reports.

(More on TIME.com: SPECIAL: Who Needs Organic Food?)

The new icon was created by USDA in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and input from the First Lady’s team. The USDA said it had conducted focus groups with about 4,500 people, including children, to develop the symbol.

The USDA released a new guide to healthy eating, replacing the familiar food pyramid with a dinner plate.

The new guide, called MyPlate, features five color-coded food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy. Fruits and vegetables make up half of the plate, with dairy in a cup on the side.

The launch of MyPlate comes at a time of renewed national focus on healthy eating. First lady Michelle Obama, who has led government efforts to battle obesity with her “Let’s Move” initiative, helped unveil the new guide at the Department of Agriculture on Thursday. Federal dietary guidelines released in January encouraged Americans to restrict their salt and fat intake and eat more fruits and vegetables.

Some nutritionists and food industry groups say that the plate-shaped diagram, which will be used by teachers, doctors, and nurses as part of federal food programs, is easier to understand than the food pyramid. When the pyramid was first introduced to the American public in 1992, many nutritionists criticized the guide, claiming its arrangement encouraged disproportionate servings of the food groups at the bottom.

If the people praising MyPlate are right, then the guide may serve as a useful tool in health advocates’ ongoing campaign against unhealthy eating. For food companies whose products fall under one of the represented categories, MyPlate presents a new marketing opportunity. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has already said in a statement that lean beef would meet the guide’s protein recommendation, and grain groups are backing the suggestion that Americans eat more whole grains.

Notably missing from the MyPlate guide are fats, oils and sweets, which once sat at the top of the food pyramid. As the push to improve Americans’ diets continues, this omission could prove a communications challenge to companies that market sweets and fatty foods.

My plate food pyramid

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