USDA Replaces Pyramid with Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems (guest post by Andy Bellatti)

Having written about the previous USDA pyramid update in my book, I was less enthused this time around. So I am happy to cross-post this take by my colleague Andy Bellatti, budding nutritionist and blogger, whose sentiments I share and without whom I’d have no one to exchange exasperation with on Twitter.


Since last week, the arrival of the United States Department of Agriculture’s new “food icon” (aka “My Plate” or “the new food pyramid”) has been the hot topic in nutrition and public health circles. Alas, this morning, the much-speculated-about illustration was finally revealed.

There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and “relatable” interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid. Gone are confusing “servings” (leave it to the USDA to make a serving of grains equivalent to one third of a regular-sized bagel), and — finally! — grains no longer have the honor of “most encouraged food group” (they are equal with “vegetables”). While many of my colleagues have expressed enthusiasm with, and acceptance of, this new plate illustration, I am nowhere nearly as enthusiastic, for several reasons.

My first order of business — that proverbial dairy group on the side of My Plate; science lobbying at its finest. Since the plate differentiates between fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, it begs the question — why aren’t dairy products included with the “protein” group? After all, a serving of dairy has as much protein as a serving of meat, chicken, fish, beans, nuts, and seeds.

The fact that dairy has calcium is irrelevant; some green vegetables offer just as much calcium as milk — and in a more absorbable form — yet they are contained within the vegetable group. If the USDA were truly concerned with calcium intake (rather than returning the financial favor to the dairy industry), it would make a “calcium-rich food” group and include a wide variety of calcium-rich foods with equal prominence (milk, cheese, and yogurt along with kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and fortified dairy alternatives).

The official party line is that this new plate will help individuals adopt healthier behaviors. How, exactly?  Unless the government plans on matching crop subsidies to the recommendations laid out on My Plate (i.e.: subsidize fruits and vegetables, rather than wheat corn and soy to make nutritionally inferior byproducts), I don’t see how My Plate is supposed to help anyone develop better eating habits.

I don’t believe Americans are lacking knowledge or awareness that fruits and vegetables are healthy; the problem is that fruits and vegetables compete with artificially priced junk food in the marketplace. Lucky Charms and Trix are so cheap because they are made with crop subsidies; meat is cheap because it cows are fed government-subsidized crops, and so on and so forth. Is My Plate suddenly going to make a pound of vegetables cost less, and a box of Lucky Charms cost more? Will My Plate turn food deserts into areas where residents can have access to healthy foods?

Our government essentially subsidizes soda, but in the messages that accompany this “plate”, tells its citizens to “drink water instead of sugary drinks.” Interesting, too, how “the plate” doesn’t want us to drink sugary drinks, yet the USDA has no problem with the fact that millions of children drink chocolate milk at schools on a daily basis.

As long as people live in environments that are not conducive to making healthy decisions, can we really expect an illustration of a plate to achieve anything? In all fairness, First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned the importance of increasing access and availability of fruits and vegetables at this morning’s press conference, and Monsanto-friendly Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack alluded to rebuilding rural economies. While certainly encouraging to have those issues be part of public discourse, they need to be a priority — certainly before rolling out a new illustration that doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, pardon the pun. It’s also difficult to not dismiss those statements as empty words considering that no specific actions or policies to achieve those goals was mentioned.

Of course, My Plate does not exist in a vacuum. As public health lawyer Michele Simon pointed out in her critique of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans this past February, food companies’ marketing budgets squash those of federal nutrition campaigns.  Earlier this morning, she and I had a very similar — and frightening — thought: how long until the new USDA plate illustration shows up on boxes of Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, and nacho cheese chips? Don’t forget — Big Food loves nothing more than to appropriate “official” nutrition advice and twist it as they desire.

My Plate also highlights some recommendations from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including:

  • Avoid oversized portions” (it would help if oversized portions weren’t a norm at restaurants; yet another issue that comes back to crop subsidies. We can offer huge portions of certain foods because they are artificially cheap.)
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk” (there’s the milk lobbying again! This statement assumes everyone drinks, or should drink, milk. What if you’re lactose intolerant? What if you’e vegan? What if you simply do not like the taste of milk? Besides, saturated fat consumption has remained steady for the past three decades.)
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals, and choose the foods with lower numbers.” (Fair enough, but why isn’t a similar statement made about sweeteners, which are ubiquitous in our food supply and which have been linked to increased risk of heart disease when consumed in the large amounts they are by the average American? Why not also recommend that people read ingredient lists and avoid things with artificial dyes artificial sweeteners?).

Much like the old pyramid, this plate does absolutely nothing towards differentiating between healthier and unhealthier fats.  In fact, fats aren’t even mentioned. The plate needs a “healthy fats” slice, that would promote the consumption of monounsaturated fats (almonds, avocado, olives) and omega-3 fatty acids. Or, at the very least, a recommendation to “obtain most of your fats from foods, not added oils”.

The plate is the nutritional equivalent of shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Rather than fix the issues at hand with policies that promote health, the USDA chooses to distract us with colorful pictures and press releases that attempt to pass off tinsel as gold.

Andy Bellatti, MS, is on the Registered Dietitian track at New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, and enrolled at Seattle’s Sea Mar Health Clinics for his Dietetic Internship. He expects his RD this summer, and you can find him here.

10 Responses to “USDA Replaces Pyramid with Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems (guest post by Andy Bellatti)”

  1. [...] to Help Consumers to Make Healthier Food Choices(For an interesting critique of this venture, read USDA Replaces Pyramid with Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems from the Appetite for Profit Blog) The New IconWASHINGTON, June 2, 2011 – First Lady Michelle [...]

  2. [...] “There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and ‘relatable’ interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid.” -Andy Bellatti [...]

  3. [...] USDA Replaces Pyramid with Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems guest post by Andy Bellatti. [...]

  4. twf says:

    While all of what you say is true or close to true, it is awfully cynical. Let’s try to take the good and wield it to our advantage. At the very least, lean protein has a chance to market itself better, including plant protein sources. Also, with 1/2 of the plate being fruits and veggies, this encourages more marketing of those items, which has an effect of bringing more awareness to people about the need for diet transitioning.

  5. TWF,

    Thank you for your comment. You may be interested in reading a short addendum I posted, regarding claims that my critique is too cynical or negative:

  6. Matt says:

    Andy, I heartily agree with your post, and I wanted to suggest that maybe in the future, refer to it as “cow milk” instead of just “milk.” For some reason we’ve decided that milk from cows is “default” milk, and everything else has to have a qualifier. People forget that we drink milk from another species; it just seems so normal, thanks to the dairy industry’s relentless marketing and lobbying.

  7. [...] food pyramid with the new plate image, which is why I was happy to cross-post Andy Bellatti’s take, which I obviously agree with. But this week a couple of media outlets asked for my opinion, and it [...]

  8. [...] would be pretty darn full of food if I loaded it up the way the USDA shows me. While confusing (like a third of a bagel equalling one serving of grains), those of us who can do basic math in our heads can still figure out the old pyramid. Furthering [...]

  9. [...] there have been valid criticisms made about the graphic – here, here and here, for example – but taking the broad view, the clearer emphasis on vegetables [...]

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