Is ‘MyPlate’ Missing the Mark?

In conjunction with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the federal government’s newest national food and nutrition icon on June 2nd.   The new icon, referred to as MyPlate, is actually the 7th in a succession of food guides promoted by the USDA over the past 95 years.  The most recent predecessor to MyPlate was MyPyramid, introduced in 2005, which most people are relatively familiar with.  The new MyPlate is arguably easier to interpret than the pyramid, particularly because MyPlate recommendations are communicated through a simplified visual that consumers use every day – a dinner plate.

Michelle Obama had this to say about the usability of the new icon, “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.”   Easy as it may seem, we still have some reservations about the new icon, particularly the dietary suggestions and some of the interactive tools that accompany it.

  • Blanket Assumptions. MyPlate’s overall recommendation is: “Enjoy your food, but eat less”.  This statement operates under the basic assumption that all Americans overeat which is simply not true.  What if the consumer already eats appropriate portions, or perhaps doesn’t eat enough to fuel their body?  “Eat less” sounds a lot like a universal prescription for restriction and leaves little room for honoring internal cues for hunger/fullness.
  • Is this just another diet? The reigning factor in MyPlate seems to be focused on control; control your diet and portions within the confines of the plate, and avoid too many of what MyPlate defines as “empty calories” (more on this term later).  Healthy, normalized eating involves trusting your own body’s hunger, fullness, and taste cues to help give you everything you need. The My Plate icon could be a helpful reminder of the importance of a balanced diet.  However, working overtime to make every meal fit precisely into MyPlate could be more harmful than helpful in establishing a peaceful relationship with food.  Furthermore, many of the associated online tools on the USDA website, including “analyze my diet”, food tracking and calorie counters seem to foster an unnecessary focus on precise counting/measuring of foods.
  • Essentially Missing. Fats and oils are not visually represented anywhere on MyPlate despite the fact that fats and oils are necessary for energy, transportation and absorption of vitamins, satiety, taste and texture, heart health, and cholesterol.  They are an essential nutrient, and a major component of all brain and nerve cells. The MyPlate website does state that “oils are not a food group, but are essential.”  If the goal is healthy and balanced eating, such an essential part of the human diet needs to be represented on this easy-to-read graphic as it was with the last two government food models. Showing healthy ways to incorporate dietary fat and oils into meals could help educate consumers on appropriate amounts of dietary fats and oils as opposed to just instilling a fear of them by ignoring them altogether in the icon.
  • Labeling Foods. Labeling foods as good/bad or healthy/unhealthy is a way of thinking that isn’t making Americans any healthier and can actually promote disordered eating.  Yet the USDA website where MyPlate lives continues to assign the  “empty calories” label to a long list of  foods.  A calorie is a measure of energy, equal to the amount of heat that is contained in food and released upon breakdown in the body.  All food provides energy to our body – glucose to fuel our cells, protein to build, repair, and maintain body tissues, and fat for healthy cell membranes and brain development. Remember that by incorporating different choices from all food groups, you will naturally be achieving an appropriate balance of calories – thus leaving room for the treats and extras that are physiologically and psychologically satisfying.  Removing labels on food, such as “empty calories”, and working to make all foods neutral lends itself to a healthier relationship with food, and helps with food habituation – when you’ve had a food item a multitude of times and can decide freely whether you’ll truly enjoy and taste the food when you have it.
  • Logic. The plate pictures protein, grains, fruits and vegetables with a side of dairy as an ideal meal. How would an average consumer translate this message? Perhaps strawberries just don’t make sense with your Chinese food meal.   Does this picture create the notion that every food group must be consumed at every meal? (i.e. veggies with your cereal?)  That feels like a lot of pressure.  And what about lasagna or casseroles when almost all of the food groups may be combined into one dish – where does that fit into the MyPlate icon?  Looking at an overall weekly balance of nutrients and food choices would be more appropriate than feeling as if the eating must be perfect on every plate at every meal.
  • Does it promote overeating? Does the plate send the message that someone should push past their satiety point just to incorporate that fruit or dairy serving? Not honoring the fullness cue could trigger feelings of shame and guilt (not to mention physical discomfort), which can lead to emotional eating or compensatory restricting.

So, the next time you sit down to a meal, take a look at your plate. Not in an effort to follow the MyPlate guidelines exactly, but more so to be mindful.  Are you choosing a variety of foods from each food group throughout the day or week? Do the food choices make sense and complement each other?  Are you able to stop when you feel full?  Choosing foods that nurture the body and the mind are all steps on your road to health, and a healthy relationship with food.

Do you have questions about MyPlate or other nutritional guidelines?  Ask our Registered Dietitians and we’ll post the questions and answers on our blog!  Submit questions by emailing kclemmer@sheppardpratt.org anytime before August 10th.  Add “ask the dietitian” in the subject line.


Submitted by Courtney Perkins, RD with contributions by CED’s team of Registered Dietitians

Momentum of Positive Change: The AMA’s Photoshop Policy & Beyond

On its website, the American Medical Association (AMA) states that its mission is to “help doctors help patients by uniting physicians nationwide to work on the most important professional and public health issues.”  It speaks volumes then, that in their most recent press release, the AMA announced the adoption of a new policy to discourage the rampant use of photoshopping and American Medical Association Logophoto editing by advertisers.  In the policy, AMA cites the connection between unrealistic/altered images and adolescent health problems, particularly body image and eating disorders. A press release about the new policy included the following statement:

Advertisers commonly alter photographs to enhance the appearance of models’ bodies, and such alterations can contribute to unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image – especially among impressionable children and adolescents. A large body of literature links exposure to media-propagated images of unrealistic body image to eating disorders and other child and adolescent health problems. The AMA adopted new policy to encourage advertising associations to work with public and private sector organizations concerned with child and adolescent health to develop guidelines for advertisements, especially those appearing in teen-oriented publications, that would discourage the altering of photographs in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image.

Its important to note that eating disorders are biological illnesses with a myriad of  genetic, hormonal and neurobiological factors.  Just as parents do not cause eating disorders, nor do airbrushed magazine ads. (In fact, Carrie Arnold over at Psychology Today’s Body of Evidence does a great job of examining this aspect of the AMA’s statement).  But our hope is that this new policy is not just focused on removing a risk factor for those who may be genetically more susceptible to the “thin ideal”.  A society saturated with computer-generated images portrayed as real bodies is unhealthy and harmful whether it contributes to an eating disorder or not.   Its harmful to females and males.  Its harmful to kids and adults.  Its harmful for anyone that struggles with negative self-esteem or body image.  In this way, the issue of photoshop and media ethics is more than an eating disorder prevention issue but one that addresses self-esteem and body image on a societal level.

While some will say the policy doesn’t accomplish enough, its encouraging to see a well-respected, national organization like the AMA acknowledging the issue and prompting further attention to it. What’s most encouraging isGirl Scouts of America logo that this recent action by the AMA, seems to be part of a larger momentum of change including the Girl Scouts’ announcement of its’ project, Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which is being co-launched by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), and The Creative Coalition.

The new policy also arrives amidst several specific wins in the fight against harmful media practices surrounding weight, food, beauty ideals and sexualization.  Most recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) won a settlement against Beiersdorf, Inc. (parent company of Nivea) Inc. that prohibits them from making continued false claims that its Nivea My Silhouette! skin cream can reduce consumers’ body size.  In June, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) publicly applauded Yoplait for agreeing to pull a troubling ad campaign after being warned by NEDA that it normalized dangerously disordered thoughts around food and weight.  And thanks to international body image advocates Sharon HaywoodMelinda Tankard Reist and more than 5,000 signatures on a petition at Change.org, major networks MTV and VH1 both agreed to ban a violent and misogynistic music video starring Kanye West and other high profile music stars.

Lots of individuals and organizations are pushing back against the tide of false bodies, diet myths, weight prejudice and general negativity in the media.  They’re making great strides in the promotion of positive body image, self-esteem and overall health (vs. weight).  In addition to those we mentioned above, here are just a few more organizations and individuals that are doing good and speaking out for change:

When it comes to body image and media literacy, what other successful campaigns and positive social changes have you noticed lately? 

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