USDA Trades In Old Pyramid for a New Plate

I suspect Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was overstating things a bit yesterday when unveiling the long-awaited icon to accompany the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“It’s an important day for the entire country,” he declared, as he prepared to introduce the USDA’s new MyPlate. The icon replaces the old MyPyramid.

Well, important for dietitians, public health advocates and those interested in nutrition, maybe. I suspect more Americans were following Weinergate.

For the most part, MyPlate got a warm reception. First, it’s simple to understand. Anyone can glance at it and know half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter grains (mostly whole) and a quarter protein– with a small serving of dairy on the side. That’s a huge improvement over the old MyPyramid, which was widely criticized for being confusing and, basically, useless. That’s it here. Do you have any idea what those multicolored stripes mean? That’s OK, no one else did either.

Is it perfect? No, these things never are. As Adrienne Youdim, M.D., medical director of the Cedars-Sinai Weight Loss Clinic in Los Angeles noted, what you gain in simplicity you sacrifice in detail. Still, if people get the message on the proper proportions of fruits, veggies, grains and protein, that’s enough of a step in the right direction. In perfect world, she added, MyPlate would incorporate the message of physical activity, much like the stick figure did in the old pyramid.

Even Food Politics‘ Marion Nestle, who’s a tough critic of the USDA, is (mostly) satisfied with MyPlate. “My one quibble? Protein,” she notes in her blog. “Protein is a nutrient, not a food. Protein is not exactly lacking in American diets. The average American consumes twice the protein needed.  Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine PCRM raises another issue. While MyPlate emphasizes fruits and vegetables–and looks a lot (OK, almost exactly) like the PCRM’s own Power Plate–it’s at odds with current federal agricultural subsidies.

“The plate icon advises Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese, but the federal government is subsidizing these very products with billions of tax dollars and giving almost no support to fruits and vegetables,” says PCRM staff nutritionist Kathryn Strong, M.S., R.D.

More than 60% of federal subsidies go toward promoting meat and dairy. Fruits and vegetables get less than 1%. So while the government is touting fruits and vegetables on half MyPlate, it’s doing little to fund promoting those foods.

Sure, if you visit the website, you can click around the plate to learn the different foods that make up the plate, and there are some improvements there. In “Proteins,” beans and peas, nuts and seeds, and seafood suggestions overwhelm those for meat and poultry. “Dairy” includes soy milk as an alternative (though as a bit of an afterthought), and “Grains” clearly favors whole grains over refined varieties.

But how many Americans are going to spend time trolling around, anyway? Harvey Hartman, of the market research firm Hartman Group, which does wonderful research on consumer behavior, has long maintained that plates, pyramids and other government-created public-education efforts are a waste of time.

“We were among the first to warn that the last refresh of the food pyramid in 2005 would prove unsuccessful and likely have no effect on obesity rates,” he notes. “We knew this because the pyramid was particularly confusing and people do not eat according to scientific principles. But more foundationally, because our research always shows that most people are not interested in this source of information, there is little reason to expect any correlated behavioral change.”

MyPlate is unlikely to fare any better.

“Once again, the powers-that-be refused to consider the historical evidence (i.e. that these things never work) and pursue more innovative approaches,” he says. “Rather than thrusting a plate upon us, why not remove all vending machines from schools? It’s always struck me as bizarre that we would let our children eat from machines.”

What’s your take on plates and pyramids? Do you care? In the meantime, try this Obscenely Good Eggplant-Ricotta Tartine. It’s healthy, delicious food on a plate. Your plate.