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 firstname.lastname@example.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