Natalie Digate Muth by Natalie Digate Muth

My PlateWith little preceding fanfare or hype, last Thursday the federal government retired the short-lived 2005 MyPyramid dietary tool in favor of a simpler icon – a dinner plate. “MyPlate” provides Americans with a relatively simple and straightforward message – fill your plate with a little more than ¼ vegetables, a little less than ¼ fruit, ¼ grains (make at least half of them “whole”), and ¼ lean protein. Top it off with a glass of 1% or non-fat milk and you’re good to go. In fact, Michelle Obama even said at the MyPlate unveiling:

 “…As long as they’re half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, we’re golden. That’s how easy it is.”

It may not be quite that easy. It is unlikely that release of a new government icon, which in itself offers little information, will transform Americans’ lousy dietary habits into a model good nutrition. After all, only a whopping 16% of Americans even came close to following the old 1992 Food Guide Pyramid recommendations. Probably even fewer for MyPyramid, at least in part due to its complex and nuanced messages. And some cynics might argue that MyPlate leaves a lot of room for a junky diet while still meeting the proportions – fried okra, cinnamon apples, macaroni and cheese with fried chicken and a glass of 1% milk anyone? But still, most Americans get the idea – we should eat a balanced diet with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables. And everyone agrees that portion control is an essential piece of a waistline-trimming campaign. (Although the MyPlate icon doesn’t actually indicate a size of plate – you could still load up the calories with the giant-sized dinner plates used at most restaurants these days.)

Unlike MyPyramid, the new MyPlate is free of a lot of “hidden messages.” (Did you know that the bandwidth for each food group in MyPyramid represented proportion while the narrowing of each food group from bottom to top was supposed to represent moderation?) The basic approach to MyPlate makes it more likely that the average American will “get” the major messages. And it leaves a lot of room for health professionals to individualize and tailor messages using MyPlate as a starting point rather than an educational tool in and of itself.

While the icon itself purposefully doesn’t contain many messages (MyPlate is built on the premise that consumers need simple, actionable items), the government does want people to understand a few basic take-home points emphasized in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. They are:

  1. Balance calories. People should only eat the amount of calories that the body needs. Physical activity helps to balance calories (This is the only place where physical activity is discussed in the new MyPlate talking points). Individual calorie recommendations are available at
  2. Enjoy your food, but eat less. The key here is to slow down while eating to truly enjoy the food (and key in to the body’s internal cues of hunger and fullness) and try to minimize distractions like television.
  3. Avoid oversized portions. If only Americans were better at portion control. MyPlate recommends smaller plates, smaller serving sizes, and more mindful eating.
  4. Eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or 1% milk dairy products for adequate potassium, calcium, vitamin D, and fiber.
  5. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Most Americans need 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Few get anywhere near that.
  6. Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk. Full-fat dairy products provide excess calories and saturated fat in exchange for no nutritional benefit over fat-free and low-fat versions.
  7. Make half your grains whole grains (ideally even more than that). This will help to ensure adequate fiber intake and decrease intake of highly processed foods.
  8. Eat fewer foods high in solid (typically saturated and trans) fat, added sugars, and salt.
  9. Compare sodium in foods and then choose the lower sodium versions.
  10.  Drink water instead of sugary drinks to help cut sugar and unnecessary calories.

These messages will be emphasized in turn during a multi-year campaign by Let’s Move and the USDA to promote better eating when online tools and how-to strategies will also be available.

Ultimately, the launch of MyPlate is one facet of Michelle Obama’s effort to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation and overall improve the health and lifestyle of Americans.  Stay tuned for more healthy eating messages and details from the White House and the Department of Agriculture. In the meantime, don’t forget to color at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables.

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