The New Nutrition Guidelines: What's On Your Plate?

Buh-bye food pyramid, hello, easier-to-understand, more realistic nutrition advice

Michelle Obama unveiled the government's new nutritional guidelines on Thursday, and the best news? We no longer have to eat off unwieldy food pyramids (with creepy stick figures running up the side). Instead, the USDA brings you MyPlate, a super-simple graphic that puts your food on -- wait for it! -- a dinner plate.

I know. So obvious, you're a little bit embarrassed for the government not thinking it up sooner.

The new food guidelines are pretty clear: Make half your plate fruits and veggies, and divide the other half 60:40 between grains (mostly whole) and protein (mostly lean). Then there's a slightly random blue dairy circle in the top right corner, I guess to remind you to drink your milk. (Some critics argue that dairy and protein could share a corner of the plate, but they don't work for the milk and meat lobbies.) Underneath the graphic, USDA offers some specific advice like, "Enjoy your food, but eat less," and "Drink water instead of sugary drinks."

Considering the number of stakeholders and the amount of industry lobbying that goes into the making of any public health initiative, I'm pretty pleased with this result. It's easy to understand and put into practice when you're deciding what to order in a restaurant or cook for dinner.

And as Marion Nestle, PhD told USA Today: "I love it that the messages begin with 'enjoy your food.'" Yes! 

One misconception that I encounter as a body image advocate is that when I say things like you don't have to earn the right to eat a cookie, I'm encouraging everyone to sit around and eat junk food all day. I am not. I actually try really hard to avoid encouraging people to eat or not eat anything specific, because I'm not your nutritionist or your doctor and I don't know your personal food and health history. (Neither does the government, so they have my sympathies trying to come up with some one-size-fits-all advice like this.) 

What I do advocate for is the notion that we can remove guilt and shame from food decisions and make eating a pleasurable and healthful experience. One key strategy is to recognize that there are no good foods or bad foods, only foods for different purposes -- some are pleasurable, some are healthful, and many are a combination of both. Another is to get away from calorie-counting, point-counting and other obsessive rule following and tune in to what your body needs and how it feels when you eat.

So I love that the new guidelines don't require any kind of tracking whatsoever. Just put tasty food on your (not too big) plate and if it looks like the graphic, "We're all good," says Obama. (I would love another set of graphics that show how these guidelines translate to a one pot meal like say, chili or pasta. But I guess you could start by assembling all your ingredients into little quadrants like this and then mix everything together in the pot. Okay, problem solved.) 

And I really love that the government put "enjoy your food" at the top of our nutritional to do lists. It sends exactly the right message -- that these are guidelines, not commandments, and that food is for fun as well as fuel. A body image win all around.

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