How to Make MyPlate Your Plate


Goodbye food pyramid, hello plate-with a side order of science-based dietary advice.

After nearly two decades, the familiar if sometimes confusing food pyramid has gone the way of the pharaohs, replaced by a new official icon to remind Americans how to eat right: MyPlate. In unveiling the symbol along with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, First Lady Michelle Obama said, When it comes to eating, whats more simple than a plate? If an Americans actual plate of food mirrors the produce-heavy icon, she added, then were good, its as simple as that.

The stylized plate graphic is divided into four wedges, representing fruits and vegetables (which take up half of the plate), grains and protein (meaning sources such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds). In a dramatic shift from how most Americans plan their meals, the protein wedge represents a little less than a quarter of the plate. A circle adjoining the plate icon adds a place for dairy, such as a glass of skim or reduced-fat milk or yogurt.

The Agriculture Department spent about $2 million developing MyPlate and its accompanying website at, whose healthy-eating tips build on the messages of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January (see our May Special Supplement). Focus groups totaling some 4,500 Americans, including children, helped refine the design and educational materials. The unveiling of MyPlate will kick off a campaign urging Americans to follow the icons guidance and fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables. Subsequent messaging phases will encourage consumers to control portion sizes, enjoy your food but eat less of it and drink water instead of sugary beverages.

Nutrition experts, who often found fault with the increasingly complex pyramid, generally praised the switch to a plate-especially its emphasis on eating more of a plant-based diet. Its a very good change in the right direction, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. Now we need to see how the public interprets the figure and then potentially modify. I would like to see some examples within each sector of specific foods-for example, within the protein sector pictures of fish, poultry, legumes and eggs. I would also like to see different forms of foods-for example, within vegetables fresh, frozen and canned. It might also be a good idea to add the word whole next to grains and expand the protein sector to include dairy.

The simplified plate imagery also omits any depiction of sodium, solid fats (saturated and trans fats) and added sugars- prime targets of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Says Lichtenstein, The new plate gives no guidance on dietary fat type or level. It would be nice to see some indication that it is important to use liquid vegetable oils to prepare foods and to consume a moderate- rather than low-fat diet.

For these details, you need to dig into MyPlate online. There youll also find key consumer messages that Uncle Sam wants you to know as you rework your own plates at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Meet the Fruit Group
As for the key message to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, Lichtenstein says, I am not certain the distinction between vegetables and fruits needs to be made. Filling the plate with any mixture of the two may be fine, especially since fruit is frequently added to vegetable salads, and some items are generally thought of a vegetables when they are technically fruit (e.g., tomatoes).

But what about fruit juice? MyPlates answer is yes, 100% fruit juice counts-but… make most of your choices whole or cut-up fruit rather than juice, for the benefits dietary fiber provides. Frozen, canned and dried fruits also count, not just fresh, but be wary of added sugars.

    Other nutritional tips for filling your plates portion of fruit include:

    • Select fruits with more potassium often, such as bananas, prunes and prune juice, dried peaches and apricots, and orange juice.
    • When choosing canned fruits, select fruit canned in 100% fruit juice or water rather than syrup.
    • Vary your fruit choices. Fruits differ in nutrient content.

Vegetable Variety
The definition of vegetables is pretty straightforward, too-the challenge being not identifying veggies but eating enough of them. Beans and peas appear here as well as in the protein group. MyPlate emphasizes the importance of eating a variety of vegetables from all five subgroups, which also include dark green, red and orange, starchy and other vegetables (from artichokes to zucchini). Fresh, frozen, canned and even juiced and pured veggies all count here.

    Among the tips for making smart vegetable choices:

    • Select vegetables with more potassium often, such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, white beans, tomato products (paste, sauce and juice), beet greens, soybeans, lima beans, spinach, lentils and kidney beans.
    • Sauces or seasonings can add calories, saturated fat and sodium to vegetables. Use the Nutrition Facts label to compare the calories and % Daily Value for saturated fat and sodium in plain and seasoned vegetables.
    • Prepare more foods from fresh ingredients to lower sodium intake. Most sodium in the food supply comes from packaged or processed foods.
    • Buy canned vegetables labeled reduced sodium, low sodium or no salt added. If you want to add a little salt it will likely be less than the amount in the regular canned product.
Shaping Dietary AdviceUncle Sam has been serving up nutrition advice since 1902, when Wilbur Olin Atwater, PhD, director of the USDAs Office of Experimental Stations, published a bulletin for farmers outlining Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food. Although Atwaters advice covered only men, it holds up pretty well today: Eat more protein, beans and vegetables, while limiting fat, sugar and starchy carbohydrates.

The first official USDA food guide, written by nutritionist Caroline Hunt, appeared in 1917. It emphasized the new science of vitamins (see this issues Special Supplement) and identified five food groups: milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruit, fats and fatty foods, sugars and sugary foods.

    After the National Academy of Sciences issued its first Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA), the USDA created the National Wartime Nutrition Guide in 1943. Revised in 1946 as the National Nutrition Guide, it promoted the Basic 7 food groups. They were arranged in a circle-a shape returned to 65 years later with MyPlate-with equal wedges:

    1. Green and yellow vegetables
    2. Citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and salad greens
    3. Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits
    4. Milk and milk products
    5. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas and nuts
    6. Bread, flour and cereals
    7. Butter and fortified margarine.

In 1956, the icon-free Essentials of an Adequate Diet revamped this list into the four basic food groups that generations of schoolchildren would grow up learning: milk, meat, vegetables and fruits, breads and cereals. The emphasis was still on making sure Americans ate enough food-a message we learned all too well.

A fifth food group-with a message urging moderation-was tacked on in 1979: fats, oils and sweets.

That language reappeared at the tiny top of the first food pyramid in 1992, accompanied by (in growing pyramid pieces): milk, yogurt & cheese and meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs & nuts; vegetables and fruits; and bread, cereal, rice & pasta at the base.

The updated MyPyramid in 2005 turned the divisions sideways, resembling more of a prism, and added a figure climbing it to remind us to exercise. The design relabeled food groups as grains, vegetables, fruits, milk and meat & beans, plus fats & oils. In announcing the switch to MyPlate, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said of MyPyramid, It was just too complex to serve as a quick and easy guide for busy American families.

The Whole Grain Story

    Not surprisingly, given the booming popularity of whole-grain products for their health benefits, MyPlate adds a key consumer message to its orange-colored grain wedge: Make at least half your grains whole grains. Though whole grains were also emphasized in the 2005 revision of the food pyramid (MyPyramid), this advice on grains represents a long-term shift from the original 1992 pyramid. That icon was built on the broad base of a bread, cereal, rice and pasta group-larger than fruits and vegetables combined. The new lower-carb MyPlate gives grains only about the same prominence as vegetables alone, and emphasizes whole grains:

    • Choose foods that name one of the following whole-grain ingredients first on the labels ingredient list: brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, oatmeal, quinoa, rolled oats, whole-grain barley, whole-grain corn, whole-grain sorghum, whole-grain triticale, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat, wild rice.
    • Foods labeled with the words multi-grain, stone-ground, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, seven-grain or bran are usually not whole-grain products.
    • Use the Nutrition Facts label and choose whole-grain products with a higher % Daily Value for fiber.
    • Look for ingredients that indicate added sugars (such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses or raw sugar) that add extra calories. Choose foods with fewer added sugars.
    • Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose grains with a lower % Daily Value for sodium.

The Protein Puzzle
The fine print behind MyPlates wide-ranging purple protein section mostly concentrates on how to avoid the negatives that often accompany protein sources. Choose lean or low-fat meat and poultry, trim visible fat, and cook using a method that doesnt add fat. Look out for added sodium in processed meats and those enhanced with a salt solution, as well as in salted nuts and seeds.

MyPlate echoes the Dietary Guidelines advice to choose seafood at least twice a week, especially varieties rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and herring.

By including beans and peas here as well, MyPlates designers hope to get consumers thinking about these as substitutes for meat on the protein part of the plate.

Got Dairy?
Sorry, butter lovers, unlike 1943 when butter got its own food group (see box), MyPlates blue dairy circle adjacent to the main plate doesnt have room for butter, cream, cream cheese or other foods made from milk that are low in calcium. As for the rest, including milk, yogurt, ice cream and cheese, the key message is to cut down on saturated fat. Switch to fat free or low-fat (1%) milk, the USDA says, whether as a beverage with your meal or atop your latt.

Like its predecessor the food pyramid, MyPlate alone cant solve the nations obesity epidemic or counter the trend toward chronic diseases. But officials hope the image of a plate thats not dominated by, say, a slab of steak, might help keep Americans on track. This is a quick, simple reminder, as Michelle Obama put it, for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that were eating.


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