First lady Michelle Obama unveiled the new USDA MyPlate on June 2, 2011. The previous food guide, MyPyramid, was criticized for being too confusing. The new, simply designed MyPlate graphic will replace MyPyramid, and is designed to reflect the new USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were released in January 2011.
Here is the new graphic with its basic messages to consumers:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversized portions.
Foods to Increase:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make at least half your grains whole grains.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
Foods to Reduce:
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.”
MyPlate is a slight improvement upon previous food pyramids:
The 1992 USDA Food Guide Pyramid
The 2005 USDA MyPyramid
The USDA’s previous pyramids reflected the American diet exactly as it is – centered on animal products and processed foods rather than whole plant foods. The 2010 dietary guidelines make some notable steps in a healthier direction: the guidelines state that Americans consume too much sodium and too many calories from solid fats (saturated and trans fats), added sugars, and refined grains, and advised that Americans reduce their consumption of these items in favor of nutrient-dense foods. The guidelines also called for Americans to increase their total vegetable and fruit intake, especially dark green, red, and orange vegetables. Vegetables make up the largest portion of MyPlate, slightly larger than the grains portion (unfortunately the recommendation to eat more green vegetables was not included in the MyPlate graphic or messages). They also advise drinking water in place of sugar-sweetened beverages.1 Certainly all of this is sound advice.
However, what MyPlate illustrates – filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables, and half with protein and grains – will not be sufficient to significantly improve the health of Americans.
MyPlate is not the picture of a health-promoting diet
MyPlate still allows the vast majority of calories to be obtained from nutrient poor foods. Half a plate full of meat and grains (only half of which are whole grains), plus a serving of dairy at each meal does not leave enough room in the diet for high nutrient foods like vegetables and beans. Animal products and processed foods are still the major source of calories.
The “Protein” portion: Protein is a macronutrient, not a food group. Better instruction would be provided by guiding Americans toward specific foods or food groups. This perpetuates the myth of the importance of protein. Plus most Americans see “protein” and think “meat” – not greens, nuts, seeds or beans, which are much more healthful sources of protein. All “proteins” are certainly not created equal! It is important to differentiate – to depict meat and other animal products as disease-promoting foods because they raise cancer risk, and greens, beans, nuts and seeds as health-promoting foods because they decrease cancer risk. This plate further confuses people, because they do not realize that green vegetables are also high in protein. For a diet to truly be consistent with the current science, nuts and seeds should be consumed every day because of their potent cardiovascular and longevity benefits. The same goes for beans – high in fiber, phytochemicals, and resistant starch, beans are extremely protective against heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and help with weight maintenance. Nuts, seeds and beans, critical foods for excellent health, are not even present on this plate. An opportunity exists here for the government to advise beans, seeds and nuts be the preferred source of protein in the diet here, which would radically improve this program.
Vegetables vs. Grains: The quantity of vegetables and grains are almost equal in MyPlate – the vegetable portion is just slightly larger. Although whole grains are healthful, their nutrient density is not nearly as great as vegetables or beans. Grains do not deserve such a prominent place on the plate, especially since only half of grains are recommended to be whole. This allows for a dangerous amount of refined carbohydrate, which is known to promote obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. As far as carbohydrate sources, beans should be emphasized over grains.
Dairy is still prominently placed: Dairy foods are not health-promoting, and do not deserve a place at every meal. The inclusion of dairy in MyPlate perpetuates the misinformation that cows’ milk is essential to human health, and is the best and healthiest source of calcium. Plus dairy is high in protein, so realistically it should be included in the protein group. With a serving of meat (“protein”) and a serving of dairy at each meal, MyPlate allows for excessive protein intake, which in turn allows for elevated IGF-1 levels and therefore increased cancer risk. The strong link between dairy products and prostate cancer and ovarian cancer should preclude it from earning such a prominent place in this plan.2-6
Eat less: Americans do need to eat fewer calories, but the “Eat less” advice is not sufficient. This is the reason diets fail, because eating a smaller quantity of unhealthy foods that does not meet our micronutrient needs produces overwhelming hunger and addictive cravings, eventually leading back to overeating. More effective advice would be to eat greater quantities of high-nutrient, low-calorie foods, (such as vegetables and beans) satisfying the body’s desire for micronutrients and volume and leaving less room in the diet for unhealthy foods.
Packaged processed foods vs. intact grains: Also, there is no mention of limiting processed foods in the advice to consumers – salty, oily packaged foods full of excess calories could easily be placed in the “grains” category, in place of healthful intact grains.
A truly health-promoting food pyramid
I have designed my Nutritarian Food Pyramid such that the foods that are the richest in micronutrients per calorie and have the most documented protective effects should be eaten in the largest quantities. Green vegetables, at the base of the pyramid, , followed by other non-starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds, starchy vegetables, and whole grains. Ninety percent of the daily diet should be made up of these nutrient –dense unrefined plant foods, whose calories are accompanied by health-promoting phytochemicals. Foods that do not contribute significant health benefits, such as refined grains, animal products, sweets, and oils should be eaten in significantly less quantity. This model of a healthy diet aims not just to moderately improve the American diet, but to change the American diet radically, creating a diet that will dramatically reduce the risk of chronic diseases and save millions of needless medical tragedies and deaths.
1. 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Executive Summary. . http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/PolicyDoc/ExecSumm.pdf Accessed June 6, 2011.
2. Grant WB: An ecologic study of dietary links to prostate cancer. Altern Med Rev 1999;4:162-169.
3. Qin LQ, Xu JY, Wang PY, et al: Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer: meta-analysis of case-control studies. Nutr Cancer 2004;48:22-27.
4. Qin LQ, Xu JY, Wang PY, et al: Milk consumption is a risk factor for prostate cancer in Western countries: evidence from cohort studies. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2007;16:467-476.
5. Genkinger JM: Dairy Products and Ovarian Cancer: A Pooled Analysis of 12 Cohort Studies. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 2006;15:364-372.
6. Larsson SC, Orsini N, Wolk A: Milk, milk products and lactose intake and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Int J Cancer 2006;118:431-441.