As you may have heard, the USDA recently unveiled its latest attempt to help people know what they should be eating, and how much, in the form of MyPlate. Replacing the hierarchical structure of the food pyramid, MyPlate uses a plate icon (fancy that) divided into a pie chart (mm, pie). The plate reflects the popular rule that advises filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, with the remaining quarters devoted to grains and a protein. The plate also has a small circle to the side devoted to dairy, likely referring to a glass of milk.
Because I try to be a positive person, I want to start with what I like. I think using a plate as opposed to a pyramid is much more effective because, quite simply, it looks more like what we’re familiar with as far as meals. Also, the plate is a guide for individual meals as opposed to an entire day’s worth of food, as the pyramid was. Looking at individual plate makeup as opposed to a pile of food in a pyramid structure is much easier to contemplate in terms of meal planning because, really, looking at a pile of food and “X-Y servings per day” can be a little trickier to navigate than a single plate.
Now, some might respond to the above with, “Well, why use the guide at all? It’s just confusing and caters to agricultural interests.” While I agree with this concept, I also know that many, many people still rely on these systems as a guide. When I was a kid, we were taught the food pyramid in school. It’s engrained in our mentality, and while we can learn to separate ourselves from one source of information, it’s still a major source for many people. The USDA’s charts can be useful as a guide for people looking to change, improve, or develop better eating habits. However, I think it should just be treated as a guide, not a law – and unfortunately, the USDA’s charts often are treated as the latter as opposed to the former.
Why shouldn’t MyPlate and other charts be treated as law? Well, for starters, there’s this:
This little circle to the right, as I mentioned above, is obviously supposed to bring to mind a glass of milk with your meal – maybe not every meal, but close. When you click on “Dairy,” the USDA brings you to a list of the usual suspects – milk, yogurt, cheese, and dairy-based desserts (with a small shout-out to soymilk at the bottom of the list). Setting aside the joke that is pudding and ice cream being listed with foods meant to supply nutrients, this continues to tell people that the best way to get calcium is through dairy. But really, if you’re filling your plate with lots of vegetables, chances are you’re already getting calcium! Kale, broccoli, kidney beans (a protein as well), spinach, tofu, and almonds are just a few of the plant-based sources of this mineral that the dairy industry likes to claim a monopoly over.
This also leads to my issue with protein as a separate quadrant. This implies that the other quadrants do not provide protein. Again, this is not true. Many vegetables provide protein, and grains like quinoa and millet not only provide it, but provide complete proteins! While it’s nice that the USDA devotes a lot of space to vegan sources of protein like nuts and legumes, it still glosses over the nutrient density of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Extra protein from legumes, nuts, seitan, and tofu is important, but with a healthy plate, everything you’re eating is providing you with the nutrients you need. Again, though, I’m sure if the USDA acknowledged this, the meat industry would take a break from trying to ban photos inside factory farms in order to come complain in DC.
This is why MyPlate, again, must be only considered a guide and not an authority on what to eat. Everyone is different. Not everyone needs to adhere to one suggested way of eating – especially when these suggestions are largely fueled by catering to agricultural interests. Now, if this were my plate, I’d probably divide the protein quadrant in half, and devote the remaining 1/8th to more vegetables. The dairy circle would either be gone altogether, or replaced by a serving of fruit (leaving even more room for vegetables). But, I do commend the USDA for at least making an attempt to provide an easy-to-contemplate guide that’s heavy on fruits and vegetables. If anything, it’s a drastic improvement over the hideous MyPyramid from 2005.