The Pyramid vs. the Plate: Can an Icon Change Bad Behavior?

After 20 years of confusion and failure, the Food Pyramid is finally dead meat. No one really liked it or paid attention to it, and the USDA officially replaced it with the Food Plate, a colorful new icon that looks as if it were designed by Playskool for the 6-and-under set.

Out with the overly complex and controversial. In with something that Michele Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hoped would be simpler, more practical and 10 million times more effective at influencing Americans to make smarter, healthier food choices.

“What’s simpler than a plate?” asked Michelle Obama at their joint press conference. “Parent’s don’t have the time to measure out exactly 3 ounces of protein. We do have time to look at our kids’ plates.”

The new Food Plate — it’s supposed to be an 8 inch plate, so keep that in mind when you’re piling on the mashed potatoes — is divided into four color-coded, role-model portions: Vegetables (green), fruits (red), grains (orange) and proteins (purple). That’s it. No reference to number of servings; no mention of sugars, fats or oils; no little man running up and down the side of the pyramid trying to convey the importance of exercise.

It’s all been utterly simplified, which is a much nicer expression, I think, than dumbed-down. Fruits and vegetables are shown taking up half the plate, grains and protein the other half. Vegetables get the biggest wedge; protein the smallest, but not by a lot. Next to the plate is a blue circle that represents a serving of dairy (milk, yogurt or cheese.) And on the other side of the plate sits a single fork. No spoon. No knife. Just a fork. I hate to be a spoilsport, but really, how do we eat our soup?

“It’s an enormous improvement!” commented Marion Nestle, a highly regarded nutrition expert, one of many who trashed the old My Pyramid icon as useless and confusing. “You can put on your plate whatever you like, so it’s not saying what you have to eat and can’t eat and must eat.”

She’s especially pleased that one of the main messages conveyed is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. If people all across America did that one thing alone — made fruits and vegetables half of every meal — we’d all be healthier, and the nation’s obesity problem would fit into a size 6.

“My quibble is calling that group ‘protein’ when grains and dairy foods also have protein and are very good sources of protein,” says Nestle. “It’s a nutritionist’s quibble. Mostly I think (the Food Plate) is really good.”

Lots of folks do, but the proof is in the pudding, which has no place at all on the new Food Plate. Dessert isn’t mentioned. Neither is exercise, my own minor quibble. Also missing are important explanations of what foods constitute a food group. For those details, you have to click on the computerized version of the Food Plate or go to the website, where you’ll find service-for-12, all the background nutritional information that wouldn’t fit on the plate, including some of the best USDA tidbits: enjoy your food, but eat less; avoid oversized portions; make at least half your grains whole grains; and my absolute favorite, drink water instead of sugary drinks.

While My Plate is a big improvement over My Pyramid, blogs Dr. Andrew Weil, it still has some cracks, including the fact it doesn’t differentiate between real fruit and fruit juice (whole fruit is better!) and it suggests eating swordfish, which Weil says is an over-fished and toxic species.

Another well-respected physician, Neal Bernard, mixes praise with politics. While the USDA advises Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese, and to eat more fruits and veggies, he says, annual U.S. agriculture subsidies do exactly the opposite: About 60 percent of the $16 billion supports meat and dairy production, while less than 1 percent goes to fruits and vegetables.


“When the waitress asked if I wanted my pizza cut into four or eight slices I said: ‘Four. I don’t think I can eat eight.'” — Yogi Berra

Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected]

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