Since the 1940s, USDA daily recommendations have undergone several poster spreads: The “Basic 7” wheel, “The Basic 4” (when three basics got shunned), the “Food Guide Pyramid”, and, its 2005 incarnation “MyPyramid.” The latest guide is called “MyPlate.”
The new diagram features five categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. They are represented a la pie graph in picture-perfect serving proportions with dairy as a little glass in the top right corner. Grains and veggies are slightly larger than fruits and proteins, which are slightly larger than dairy.
Seems easy enough… but wait! Not long after its 2011 debut, MyPlate fell victim to serious criticism. Here are some of its flaws:
1. A picture is not worth a thousand words. Just ask vegetables.
While the diagram is catchy, all those bright block colors to dazzle us with “appropriate” serving sizes, it seems a bit lacking in information. After following links through the ChooseMyPlate website, eaters eventually learn there are “starchy vegetables,” “dark, leafy greens,” and so on but with no other explanation. There is nothing telling us our veggies should be a veritable rainbow, such that we get a variety of nutrients. Rather, we are merely told to “make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” but it’s still important how that half-plate is composed.
Fun with conspiracies: Not only do commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy come with government subsidies, but also vegetative diversity—growing various fruits and vegetables for the market—actually prevents farmers from receiving aid.
2. “Protein is not a food group! It’s a nutrient.”
Then, there are “unique foods” like beans and peas, listed both as a vegetable and a protein. Beans and peas are protein-rich foods, but I’d hardly say that makes them unique. Plenty of other vegetables like spinach and kale are power-packed, even more so—calorie for calorie—than meat. Many grains are also great sources of protein. Quinoa—in protein terms—is the equivalent to a ripped up muscle-head leaving pork butts in the dust. So, why exactly do we need a “protein” pie slice on the graph? Well, the protein category is largely a list of different meats with some token soy products and nuts. Which makes me wonder though, is it to sell meat?
Fun with conspiracies: Do we have a protein section because the American public has been duped into believing the only thing that really equates to protein is meat? Can anyone remember what’s being used to feed all this meat? Raise your forks.
3. What exactly do they mean by dairy?
The fine print says that only dairy products that retain their calcium content get to be represented by the dairy circle. This leaves out items like cream cheese, cream, butter, and other foods that are not crammed with calcium. But, aren’t cows basically leaking calcium from their bosoms? How is it possible to have a milk product with low calcium? Oh yeah, for the lactose-intolerant or—hmmph—vegan: fortified soy milk. Hey, if calcium is the main qualifier, why not include some of those dark, leafy greens from the vegetable group or almonds from the protein portion? Speaking of protein, should we just call the dairy food group “calcium”?
Fun with conspiracies: Does the persistence with milk have anything to do with nearly half a billion dollars in government subsidies in 2012?
4. Grains—that’s bread and pasta, right?
Note: Refined grains and whole grains are explained a few clicks into the website, and the “Key Consumer Message” is that half of these grains should be whole grains. But, is there any time refined grains should be eaten, let alone trump whole grains? Nutrition experts at Harvard were actually perturbed enough with the MyPlate plate that they unofficially revised it—The Healthy Eating Plate—with three major changes to the graph itself: Protein became Lean Protein, Milk became Water, and Grains became Whole Grains, with a specific note to limit refined grains.
Fun with conspiracies: What is used to make bread and pasta? That’s right—wheat! How much has the U.S. government given to help out wheat farmers in the last 20 years? Nearly two billion dollars a year.
5. Juice just isn’t the same as eating a piece of fruit!
And, in the fruit category, servings can be had in either food form or as a glass of 100 percent juice. But, juiced fruit does not work the same! According to Dr. Andrew Weil, founder/director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, MyPlate “ignores the fact that the glycemic load — an indication of how quickly a food is converted to blood sugar — is far higher in fruit juices than in fruits.” A glass of juice isn’t far off from drinking a soda. Nor does MyPlate differentiate between healthy, blended green juices and a cartoon of orange juice from concentrate, not to mention between canned fruit cocktail—also government recommended—and fresh fruit salad.
Fun with conspiracies: Highly processed food is missing many of the nutrients of fresh produce, yet the government views juices and canned fruits as equals to straight up apples and oranges. Other governments say don’t drink it.
6. Eating is messier than this plate portrays! (And, that’s a good thing).
MyPlate is just too capsulized. Vegetables, dairy, grains, and even fruit have protein. People are lactose-intolerant. Fruits like avocadoes behave much differently than blueberries, and it’s good to have both. Plus, a lot of single dishes—not plates— have many or all of the food groups, which reeks havoc on the picture plate. Then again, not all foods fall into these categories neatly, and frankly, not all of these categories are necessary or possibly even recommendable (dairy!) for a healthy diet.
Fun with conspiracies: Furthermore, important considerations like GMOs, chemicals, and processing are not addressed (Subsidies! Subsidies!)—not to mention environmental concerns— because then things get even messier.
So, as you can see, the “MyPlate” visualization leaves a lot to be desired. Before following its recommendations, be sure to consider these points.
Image source: USDA / Wikimedia