Written by: Wallace Merriman

USDA Goes Back to the Basics; Shows Americans How to Fill Their Plates
Posted on:Jun 25, 2011

By The Cooper Institute

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had a long history with food guidance, dating back into the early 20th century. Looking back over this history, many different food guides have been used. They represented health and nutrition concerns of the time when they were introduced. In the 1940s, the wartime food guide promoted eating foods that provided the vitamins and minerals needed to prevent deficiencies. In the 1950s-1960s, the seven food groups were simplified into a “Food for Fitness” guide, which was commonly called “The Basic Four.” By the later 1970s, concerns about dietary excess led the USDA to issue “The Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide,” which included a “caution” group of fats, sweets, and alcohol. All of these food guides preceded the introduction of the original Food Guide Pyramid in 1992, and more recently, MyPyramid, released in 2005.
So what’s new in 2011? www.ChooseMyPlate.gov!

MyPlate is a (simplified) graphic representation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, and helps Americans visualize what types and amounts of foods should go on their breakfast, lunch, and dinner plates. When you go to www.ChooseMyPlate.gov you can click on the food groups to see what foods are in each group and you will see these key messages that go along with MyPlate:

  • Balancing Calories: 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

You will also see that the useful tools and resources that were part of MyPyramid still exist:

  • Daily Food Plan – to find out exactly how much from each of the food groups you need each day
  • Food Tracker – to track the foods/beverages you consume as well as your physical activity and compare them to what’s recommended for you
  • Food Planner – to plan meals that meet your specific needs

The nutrition professionals and general consumers that I’ve spoken with seem to appreciate this new, simplified image that allows Americans to quickly assess the healthfulness of their meals. However, MyPlate is not without criticism. Here are some drawbacks that have been pointed out:

  • Where is physical activity on MyPlate? MyPyramid clearly showed the importance of physical activity (by the man walking up the pyramid) in addition to a healthy, balanced diet for weight management and health.
  • Where is water on MyPlate? While the recommendation to drink water instead of sugary beverages is a key message under the plate (on the MyPlate website) it’s important enough that it should be shown on the graphic.
  • Where are fats and oils on MyPlate? MyPyramid had a color band (yellow) for fats and oils. I think it can be assumed that healthy oils should be part of the food groups on the plate (e.g., omega-3 fats in salmon (protein) or olive oil used to saute squash (vegetables), but this is not explicitly stated or shown.
  • MyPlate doesn’t emphasize that there are healthier choices within each food group. For instance, someone could choose a big scoop of mashed potatoes or steamed broccoli and carrots to fill their vegetables “slice” of the plate.
  • MyPlate doesn’t emphasize portion size enough; the plate looks pretty big and someone could see this and eat more food than their individual body needs.

Thus, it’s important to not only show people MyPlate, but also to drive them to www.ChooseMyPlate.gov. There, they can find out how much they need from each food group and what foods are part of each food group, to promote food and beverage choices that support weight maintenance (or loss) as well as disease prevention.