healthy-eating-plate-harvard

You might remember that only a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released My Plate. Based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the mealtime  illustration was intended to “help consumers make better food choices.”

The familiar place setting visual was supposed to simplify key health messages and remind Americans to eat nutritiously. Simple it is. But in trying to reduce the message into a picture that would both please American consumers and agricultural interests, did the nutrition piece get downplayed?

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The Harvard School of Public Health seems to think so. Just this month, it released its own Healthy Eating Plate in order to address what it saw as shortcomings in the government’s My Plate.

“My Plate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating,” said Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate centers its message around a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, healthy fats, and plant-based proteins, with limited amounts of lean animal protein and dairy. Scientific evidence consistently supports a plant-based, whole-foods diet for disease prevention and weight loss, yet despite these recommendations, Americans are increasingly their consumption of animal-based proteins, processed foods, and sugary beverages.

As compared to My Plate, the Healthy Eating Plate:

  1. Acknowledges that some foods are better than others. Harvard specifies that whole grains are a better choice over refined grains. It also encourages plant proteins, fish, and poultry over red meat; and explains that plant-based fats and oils can be beneficial.
  2. Limits dairy and sweetened beverages: Harvard admonishes MyPlate for encouraging over consumption of dairy products. Stating  “…there is little evidence that high dairy intake protects against osteoporosis but substantial evidence that high intake can be harmful; and it says nothing about sugary drinks.”
  3. Gets real about meat. Harvard’s plate specifically states to limit red meat—beef, pork, or lamb, and processed meats. Bacon, cold cuts, hot dogs, and the like “strongly raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.”
  4. Encourages exercise. Healthy Eating Plate visually reminds people to stay active.

The release of Healthy Eating Plate got little attention in the media. This is unfortunate because now, more than ever, public education about the importance of good nutrition is critical. With lifestyle-related chronic disease and disability rates rising, and nearly two out of three adults and one in three children overweight or obese, you would think changing the way America eats to be a national priority.

Simple is good. But in this case did simplicity impair the take home message? A cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake can fit right into the USDA’s My Plate. Is that a healthy lunch so long as you add the apple slices? In that case, I know just the place to go for a happy… I mean, My Plate meal.

Harvard said My Plate favored agricultural interests over public health and that Americans need better guidance on what foods to eat, and what not to eat. What do you think?

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