USDA Sets Table with MyPlate; Throws Out Food Pyramid

The United States Department of Agriculture's efforts to educate Americans about healthy eating habits have been illustrated through a number of shapes over the years.

During World War II, the USDA introduced the "Basic 7" food groups on a color wheel, which broke foods down by color association, and later reduced this recommendation to the "Basic 4." This was untouched for nearly 40 years, until the 1992 introduction of The Food Guide Pyramid, which indicated proportionate intake of food categories from grains to fats, oils and sweets. It was widely criticized for being difficult to comprehend, counterintuitive, and just plain wrong.

The 2005 MyPyramid, with food groups illustrated in vertical stripes (and a stick figure climbing a staircase to its top), was as equally confounding as its predecessor. Over the years, nutritionists have argued that these visual aides have not proved helpful in changing people's eating habits or guiding their choices.

On Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack rolled out MyPlate, a new graphic to accompany the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Compared to the basic food groups and food pyramids, this new plate-shaped model is much simpler, visually. It's broken into colorful quadrants representing food groups -- fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains -- with a smaller circle off to the side for dairy.

More than a graphic metaphor, this design is meant to mimic how our mealtime plates should appear, with a full half devoted to fruits and/or vegetables and the remaining half split evenly between grains and proteins (plus a small amount of dairy thrown in for good measure). This is a great departure from the protein- and starch-heavy plates most Americans assemble for themselves. At the press conference announcing the change, Vilsack said that "It is a constant reminder as you look at your own plate whether your portion sizes are right; whether you've got enough fruits and vegetables on that plate."

The most significant change indicated by MyPlate is the reduced emphasis on grains, which made up the base of the food pyramids and the largest portion of previously recommended diets. But, this doesn't mean a reduction in carbohydrates as a whole. As Marisa Moore, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, told CNN, "Fruits are a source of carbohydrates and most starchy vegetables are carb sources." These plant-based foods will make up the greatest portion of recommended diets and offer energy-providing carbohydrates in a healthier form.

The USDA plans to promote MyPlate using social media and a newly minted website, ChooseMyPlate.gov, which aims to educate the public about proper diet and exercise. It is hoped that these new offerings will help to counter the rising rates of obesity. One of the site's interactive tools allows you to plug in your age, weight, height, gender and exercise routines and it will come up with a customized daily food plan for you, including recommended portions of each food group.

When introducing MyPlate, first lady Obama stressed the ease of understanding that this new icon brings to the table: "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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