The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided food recommendations to Americans since 1894 even before the discovery of vitamins.
Over time, these food guidance systems have evolved from a primary focus on what foods to eat to meet nutrient needs to more about avoiding excessive intake of food components linked to chronic disease.
The latest USDA system is called MyPlate, which replaces the MyPyramid food guidance system.
Question: What are the benefits of the MyPlate food guidance system?
Answer: Instead of the pyramid display, MyPlate illustrates healthful proportions of food groups to consume by how much of a plate these foods should fill. The MyPlate illustration clearly emphasizes that all food groups (protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables and grains) are important when consumed in reasonable quantities.
Q: Is MyPlate different from MyPyramid?
A: The greatest difference between the two, with the exception of the image, is that MyPlate has no obvious exercise message, whereas MyPyramid had someone climbing stairs to emphasize the importance of physical activity.
The food pattern recommended by MyPlate is essentially the same as MyPyramid, in a new package. The key messages are to eat less, control portion size, make half the plate fruits and vegetables and at least half of grains whole grains, switch to fat-free or low-fat milk, decrease sodium and drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Q: Are there problems with MyPlate?
A: Yes. The same diet planning and evaluation website tools developed for MyPyramid are on the MyPlate website but have the same limitations. The so-called personalized daily food plan is really more of a one-size-fits-all plan because it will provide a food plan even without your body weight and height. Although many of the MyPlate messages may help to prevent becoming overweight or developing obesity, the system is not well designed to treat those who are already overweight. If overweight and restricting calories, they will usually require a larger portion of their plate to be composed of lean protein foods. Otherwise, their weight loss is more likely from muscle and less likely from fat.
Also, athletes engaged in heavy daily training or individuals who work in hot environments may need to include more salt in their diets than recommended (to balance salt loss in sweat).
Those following vegetarian or vegan diet plans are unlikely to meet their protein needs if they are also cutting calories to lose weight. The vegan protein options (beans and nuts) provide about half the protein per “ounce equivalent” as the animal protein foods. Also, to get a gram of protein from lean meat requires consuming about 8 calories compared to about 24 calories from beans and 36 calories from most nuts.
Overall, we agree with the MyPlate concept that illustrates the importance of consuming a variety of foods from all food groups in reasonable proportions. This is the most important simple nutrition message to help individuals acquire their essential nutrients. Perhaps the greatest challenge in drafting food guidance recommendations for a nation is the need to generalize.
However, the devil is in the details and we think MyPlate still needs some critical exorcism.
Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., are nutritionists in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawaii-Manoa. Dobbs also works with University Health Services.