Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled MyPlate, a straightforward symbol of proper nutrition that replaces the original food pyramid, which USDA officials have called too complex for easy understanding. Katherine Tucker, professor and chair of the Department of Health Sciences in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern, weighs in on whether the new model of dietary guidelines will combat obesity by making it easier for Americans to eat healthfully.
What is the difference between MyPlate and the food pyramid?
The most recent food pyramid was confusing and difficult to follow. It provided a lot of detailed information tailored to individual needs, but its complexity prevented optimum usage. With MyPlate, experts want to simplify the message. After holding several focus groups, they’ve come up with the image of a dinner plate, which some countries have already implemented.
At first, I was surprised by the new symbol, but I’ve grown to like it. Having said that, I think it needs to be to more detailed, and factor in additional information from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for American Health. For example, the plate should let us know that 50 percent of our grains should come from whole grains.
With MyPlate, will it be easier for consumers to choose healthy foods and eat smaller portions?
I think so. The dairy section, for example, is shaped like a circle, which indicates that we should drink milk or eat yogurt — the healthiest dairy choices — instead of eating cheese. Based on dairy recommendations, people in the U.S. eat too much processed cheese.
The most important thing to remember is that half of the plate should consist of fruits and vegetables, which may encourage people to include more fruit in their meals by adding it to salads or eating it for dessert. Good nutrition is all about portion size, quality and avoiding highly processed, high-calorie products. With supplementary materials, I think the plate will help consumers adopt a better diet.
In spite of dietary guidelines, obesity rates have skyrocketed. How can government, community and industry leaders come together to ensure that MyPlate will convince people to comply?
That’s the million-dollar question. On top of numerous USDA-funded studies on how to prevent childhood obesity, I think now is the perfect time for something like MyPlate to act as a centerpiece for nutrition education. This image will be easier to work with and will be used widely by schools with wellness programs.
People are working together to make it easier to access fresh, healthy food. There are farmers’ markets, food co-ops, cooperative farm shares and delivery services to inner cities. There are programs to educate storeowners about healthy food and even a business model to help them through the process. It’s truly a community effort. I applaud Michelle Obama for being a spokeswoman for the cause.
Food and restaurant industries are slowly getting on board because of the consumer demand for healthy food. In the past, restaurants such as McDonald’s have shelved options like the “McLean” burger because of the low demand, but, with new concerns about obesity, diabetes and heart disease, there will be more pressure on food industries to provide healthy options.