The USDA My Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems

By Andy Bellatti

USDA My Plate Illustration

USDA My Plate Illustration

The United States Department of Agriculture’s new “food icon” (aka “My Plate” or “the new food pyramid”) has been a hot topic in nutrition and public health circles since its official unveiling the morning of June 2nd.

There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and “relatable” interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid.  There is no notion of confusing “servings” (leave it to the USDA to make a serving of grains equivalent to one third of a regular-sized bagel), and — finally! — grains no longer have the distinction of “most encouraged food group” (they are now second to “vegetables”).  While many of my colleagues have expressed enthusiasm for, and acceptance of, this new plate illustration, my point of view is nowhere near as enthusiastic, for several reasons.

My first order of business — that proverbial dairy group on the side of My Plate; science lobbying at its finest.  Since the plate differentiates between fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, it begs the question — why aren’t dairy products simply included with the “protein” group rather than gettin their own stand-alone group?  After all, a serving of dairy has as much protein as a serving of meat, chicken, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds.

The fact that dairy has calcium is irrelevant; some green vegetables offer just as much calcium as milk, and in a more absorbable form — yet they are umbrella’d under the vegetable group. If the USDA were truly concerned with calcium intake (rather than returning the financial favor to the dairy industry), it would make a “calcium-rich food” group and include a wide variety of calcium-rich foods with equal prominence (milk, cheese, and yogurt along with kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and fortified dairy alternatives).

The official party line is that this new plate will help individuals adopt healthier behaviors.  How, exactly?  Unless the government plans on matching crop subsidies to the recommendations laid out on My Plate (i.e.: subsidize fruits and vegetables, rather than wheat, corn and soy to make nutritionally inferior byproducts), I don’t see how My Plate is supposed to help anyone develop better eating habits.

I don’t believe Americans are lacking knowledge or awareness that fruits and vegetables are healthy; the problem is that fruits and vegetables compete with artificially priced junk food in the marketplace.  Lucky Charms and Trix are so cheap because they are made with crop subsidies; meat is cheap because cows are fed government-subsidized crops, and so on and so forth.  Is My Plate suddenly going to make a pound of vegetables cost less, and a box of Lucky Charms cost more?  Will My Plate turn food deserts into areas where residents can have access to healthy foods?  No.

Our government essentially subsidizes soda, but in the messages that accompany this “plate,” tells its citizens to “drink water instead of sugary drinks.”  Interesting, too, how “the plate” doesn’t want us to drink sugary drinks, yet the USDA has no problem with the fact that millions of children drink chocolate milk at schools on a daily basis.  Do as I say, not as I do.

As long as people live in environments that are not conducive to making healthy decisions, can we really expect an illustration of a plate to achieve anything? In all fairness, First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned the importance of increasing access and availability of fruits and vegetables at this morning’s press conference, and Monsanto-friendly Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack alluded to rebuilding rural economies. While certainly encouraging to have those issues be part of public discourse, they need to be a priority — certainly before rolling out a new illustration that doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, pardon the pun.  It’s also difficult not to dismiss those statements as empty words considering that no specific actions or policies to achieve those goals was mentioned.

Of course, My Plate does not exist in a vacuum.  As public health lawyer Michele Simon pointed out in her critique of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans this past February, food companies’ marketing budgets squash those of federal nutrition campaigns.  Earlier this morning, she and I had a very similar — and frightening — thought: how long until the new USDA plate illustration shows up on boxes of Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, and nacho cheese chips?  Don’t forget — Big Food loves nothing more than to appropriate “official” nutrition advice and twist it as they desire.

My Plate also highlights some recommendations from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including:

  • “Avoid oversized portions.” (it would help if oversized portions weren’t a norm at restaurants; yet another issue that comes back to crop subsidies.  We can offer huge portions of certain foods because they are artificially cheap.)
  • “Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.” (There’s the milk lobbying again! This statement just assumes everyone drinks, or should drink, milk. What if you’re lactose intolerant? What if you’e vegan? What if you simply do not like the taste of milk?  Besides, saturated fat consumption has remained steady for the past three decades.)
  • “Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose the foods with lower numbers.” (Fair enough, but why isn’t a similar statement made about sweeteners, which are ubiquitous in our food supply and which have been linked to increased risk of heart disease when consumed in the large amounts they are by the average American?  Why not also recommend that people read ingredient lists and avoid things with artificial dyes and artificial sweeteners?)

Much like the old pyramid, this plate does absolutely nothing towards differentiating between healthier and unhealthier fats.  In fact, fats aren’t even mentioned. The plate needs a “healthy fats” slice, that would promote the consumption of monounsaturated fats (almonds, avocado, olives) and omega-3 fatty acids.  Or, at the very least, a recommendation to “obtain most of your fats from foods, not added oils”.

The plate is the nutritional equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather than fix the issues at hand with policies that promote health, the USDA chooses to distract us with colorful pictures and press releases that attempt to pass off tinsel as gold.

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