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USDA Gives Up Pyramid for Plate

June 2, 2011

New USDA dietary guidelines chart for healthy eatinToday, the USDA abandoned the classic pyramid shape that Americans associate with the food groups and replaced it with a more practical shape for the eating public – a plate.

The revised chart is being supported by the Obama administration, and specifically by Michelle Obama in her campaign to fight obesity. In an article from Reuters, the first lady noted at the unveiling that the plate should serve as “a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating.” 

The change is definitely a step in the right direction. The last pyramid, which colorfully summarized dietary guidelines into six long stripes to represent the food groups, was vague and unrealistic. Based on the width of the strips, one would assume milk is to be consumed in approximately the same quantities as vegetables. The foods shown below the pyramid indicate that canned fish is nutritionally equivalent to steak, as is orange juice to an apple and white rice to whole wheat bread. Serving sizes were converted from ambiguous numbers to ounces and cups, but the portions were still widely inapplicable.

Old USDA Food PyramidThe new icon makes no mention of recommended servings per day, though. Instead of specifying amounts of daily intake, the plate focuses on percentages of intake, be that per meal or per day.

Half of that intake is fruits and vegetables – definitely an improvement over the pyramid. Grains and protein comprise the other half of a balanced diet, while dairy is floating off to the side on its own plate (or maybe a glass of milk?). On the one hand, this could relate that dairy isn’t totally necessary to a balanced diet, or since it is not assigned a percentage in the plate, people might take it as a recommendation to consume as much dairy as they see fit.

The plate, like its predecessors, also fails to draw distinctions between healthy fats and unhealthy ones or refined grains and whole. “Protein” is far too vague, and oils are completely left off.

Perhaps the simplicity of the plate is its virtue. The USDA’s new icon conveys the importance of fruits and vegetables without getting too specific or encouraging over eating. Overall, the message is greatly improved, but it remains to be seen whether the redesigned chart will result in a positive impact. The USDA’s past failures to clearly convey what Americans should be eating in a pyramid may not be solved by changing the shape at all.

IIN has our own version of the pyramid that we believe represents not only the fundamentals of a healthy diet, but also of overall wellness in all the most important aspects of life.

To learn more about the USDA’s new icon, go to