Pyramid vs Plate: will this new image make Americans less fat?

Good-bye, pyramid. Hello, plate.  The U.S. government’s advice to Americans on what they should eat is undergoing a shake-up as top officials search for a better way to get across the healthy eating message, reports The Globe and Mail. This means the old nutrition pyramid has been scrapped in favour of a simple plate image.

The new MyPlate image is divided into the major food groups people should consume most: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Dairy is featured as a beverage off to the side of this plate.

While not perfect, the plate highlights serious problems with the Canadian government’s guide to healthy eating, warns Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Canadian branch of the consumer advocacy group, Centre for Science in the Public Interest. 

“I think it’s certainly a much better tool than Canada’s Food Guide. It almost seemed like Health Canada went out of its way to design the Food Guide in a way that minimized its use value in terms of illustrating what the healthful diet looks like.”

Many American nutrition experts, according to the G&M, are now praising the new U.S. MyPlate as a major improvement from the confusing and even misleading food pyramid, which critics said was too hard to understand and didn’t emphasize the right foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Others, however, believe the new food plate guide is merely a marginal improvement to a deeply flawed nutritional guide pyramid that will likely have minimal effects on what the public consumes.

Canada’s Food Guide, which was last revised in 2007, has long been criticized as unclear, too complex, and for failing to properly emphasize healthy eating habits, reports the G&M. But when the 2007 version was unveiled, experts praised Health Canada’s emphasis on foods low in fat, sugar and sodium. Similarly, they applauded the Food Guide’s advice to include healthy, unsaturated fats in the diet and for people over age 50 to take vitamin D supplements.

But the Guide also recommends that half of the grains Canadians consume daily be whole grains, something that baffles nutrition experts who note there are few nutritional benefits to eating any white bread or other refined grain products.

Canada’s Food Guide emphasizes cheese as a healthy dairy product (like milk), despite the fact it is typically very high in saturated fat. Critics also complain that the Guide overemphasizes consumption of red meat and dairy products.

Back in the U.S. of A, those official food pyramids have come under attack for being unduly influenced by inappropriate conflicts of interest.

Turns out that industry lobbyists, front groups, special interest organizations, and a long line of pseudo-scientists work very hard to push for dietary guideline changes that will benefit their specific financial goals. And compared to other arguably healthier non-government eating programs like the Mediterranean diet, one wonders just how good these processed carb-heavy government pyramids are anyway.

This past year, for example, the powerful lobby group called The Sugar Association called any official government recommendation to reduce daily sugar consumption impractical, unrealistic, and not grounded in the body of evidence.”

And the National Dairy Council’s recommended three daily servings of dairy products could mean consuming as much saturated fat as 13 strips of bacon every single day if we chose to consume those dairy products in the form of three glasses of whole milk.

That’s why Harvard Medical School experts have come up with a revised plate of their own:

Here is what Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate recommends:

  • Make half your meal vegetables and fruits. Go for variety. And keep in mind that potatoes and french fries don’t count.
  • Choose whole grains whenever you can. Limit refined grains, like white rice and white bread, because the body rapidly turns them into blood sugar.
  • Pick the healthiest sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; cut back on red meat; avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats.
  • Healthy oils (like olive and canola oil) are good for you. Don’t be afraid to use them for cooking, on salad, and at the table.
  • Drink water, tea, or coffee. Milk and dairy are not must-have foods – limit them to 1-2 servings/day. Go easy on juice. Avoid sugary drinks.
  • And stay active!

Why bother modifying the new MyPlate? Because it offers little – or inaccurate – advice. writes P.J. Skerrett, editor of the Harvard Heart Letter:

“It says nothing about the quality of carbohydrates (grains). White bread and white rice raises blood sugar in a flash – whole grains are better for long-term health. It makes no distinction between healthy sources of protein such as beans, fish, and poultry, and less healthy sources, such as red and processed meat.

In addition, MyPlate recommends milk or dairy at every meal, even though there is little evidence that high dairy intake protects against osteoporosis and substantial evidence that consuming a lot of milk and dairy foods can be harmful. It says nothing about healthy oils, which are good for the heart, arteries, and the rest of the body. And it is shockingly silent on sugary drinks, which provide far too many empty calories.”

Read more in the Globe and Mail review.

See also:

4 thoughts on “Pyramid vs Plate: will this new image make Americans less fat?

  1. The plate is an improvement on the pyramid because it is easier to follow so is a step in the right direction.

    Sadly any government advice will be of limited value. The simplest dietary advice is to eat foods which our ancestors could gather or catch (they could gather more than they could catch) and roughly in those proportions.This cuts out processed and packaged food.

    • Very true. That’s why “Shop mostly on the outside aisles of the grocery store” is good advice, because all the processed stuff is in those centre aisles.

  2. Isn’t it sad that in the world’s wealthiest nation people need to have some government guide like this to tell them what they should and shouldn’t be eating? We have so much in this country, yet we choose to stuff our faces with non-nutritive food-style products. And then we wonder why Americans are obese and sick. Thx for this, Carolyn.

    • It’s also sad that we apparently have to tell mothers not to put Coke into their babies’ bottles (I’m not kidding – I have seen this!) so for some, maybe these ‘plate/pyramids’ are indeed big news. Thanks for your comment.

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