MyPlate: Fruit, veg, grains, dairy – and protein?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Protein is a nutrient, whereas the other segments of the plate represent food groups
Protein is a nutrient, whereas the other segments of the plate represent food groups

Related tags: Nutrition

One thing pretty much everyone appears to agree on is that a plate makes more sense than a pyramid if its aim is to help people work out what to have for dinner.

However, some aspects of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) new ‘MyPlate’ food icon ​have raised some eyebrows, notably the decision to mix and match food groups (fruits, grains, vegetables) with nutrients (protein).

Protein is not something most Americans are short of …

Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, told FoodNavigator-USA: “Thenew icon focuses on food groups (fruit, veg, dairy and grains), and doesn’t talk about fat, carbohydrates and so on. But it still includes protein, which is a nutrient, not a food group.”

Meanwhile, three of the four food groups listed - dairy, grains and vegetables - also contained protein, a shortage of which was “not a problem for most Americans”, ​he pointed out.

On the other hand, by focusing on food groups and not nutrients, MyPlate “sidestepped​” wrangling about ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ fats or carbs that had dogged previous food icons, he said. “This is no bad thing. I think the food groups mean more to consumers anyway.”

While he “would have liked pictur​es”, the plate was also a big improvement on MyPyramid, which was a “masterpiece of graphic design​” but a lousy tool for helping the average consumer eat more healthily, he said.

Oldways director of food and ntrition strategies Cynthia Harriman agreed the new plate was a big step forward, but said adding a few pointers for consumers under the main categories would be helpful on enlarged versions of the icon - on posters on classroom walls - for example.

"Under grains, I'd add 'mostly whole', under vegetables 'all colors', under protein 'plant-based too' and under fruit 'mostly whole'."

Easier to understand than Eatwell plate?

Marion Nestle, professor in the department of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, praised MyPlate, but also found it “odd​” that protein was sitting amongst food groups.

Americans don’t need more protein. Americans don’t need to eat more of anything except fruit and vegetables. But what they have told us is that focus group research showed consumers understand protein to encompass several food groups.”

She added: “Pictures would help but I like it that people get to put their own foods on the plate. I also think it's much easier to understand than the FSA’s pie​ chart, which is way too confusing [The UK Food Standards Agency’s​Eatwell plate, which includes pictures and a section for fatty/sugary foods to eat in moderation].”

Joined up government?

However, it was frustrating that the positive messages embodied by MyPlate were being undermined by efforts by some members of Congress to single out nutrition initiatives for funding cuts, she said.

Let’s not forget that most Americans still get their nutrition education from food companies and I would argue improving public health is not their primary goal.”

While GOP revisions to the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill would save money, blocking proposals to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids could also be seen as “Congress appeasing the food industry​”, she argued.

Her comments came as the Republican majority on the House Appropriations Committee this week approved a revised version of the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill that would significantly cut federal funding for nutrition programs.

The revised legislation questions the government’s proposal to curb marketing of unhealthy foods to children and urges the Food and Drug Administration to limit rules requiring calorie counts on menus.

It would also put a block on new nutritional standards for school meals and reduce the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program funding.

MyPlate and national security

By emphasising choice, cost savings (via lower healthcare costs) and even national security when ‘selling’ the new food icon to the press, however, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack had neatly countered claims that the government was going down the ‘nanny state’ route by telling Americans what to do, she noted.

“I was very impressed by his performance in the press conference yesterday.”

Affordable health

Whether the new food icon was an ‘economic plate’ however, remained to be seen, said Drewnowski. “It’s great that dietary guidelines say we should eat fresh , minimally processed fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and lean meat, but these cost money. Are we asking low income people to adopt a high income diet?

“It’s easy for people to say that people on low incomes should boil up a big lentil and vegetable soup and make it last all week, but who wants to do that?”

Click here​ to read more about MyPlate

Related topics: R&D, The obesity problem

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MyPlate: Not so new guidelines

Posted by c wolf,

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Same song second (or 3rd, 4th etc.) verse

Posted by Wendy Repovich,

As you can see from all the other comments, trying to "educate" all Americans by using one picture of a plate is not going to work any better than any of the other "one picture" ideas. The original pyramid had an additional 80 pages of information that was supposed to be given but no one ever looked. At least the second pyramid was designed as a portal to information whether people accessed it or not is another question. The problem is nutrition, and healthy nutrition is so much more complex than a picture of a plate divided into four groups with a circle for dairy at the side. For starters, portion control is probably the biggest problem today and it doesn't tell you how big that plate should be. The American dinner plate has grown in size over the last 40 years and if we just went back to the original size (about the size of our salad plates now) and only ate what ended up fitting on the plate we probably wouldn't be overeating on calories. Then there is the question of where protein fits in, often it is part of either the grain or vegetable or dairy portion (ask any vegetarian), if we are adding to those by needing to see protein on the plate we will probably be eating more protein than we need. Even though it was mentioned that focus groups knew that protein can be found in a number of foods when there is a space to fill people may think they have to fill it and that will most likely be from an animal source because that can be easily identified as a protein. At the same time, fat as a nutrient is actually something we need more of than protein, but it doesn't have a place on the plate anywhere. Is that going to encourage more people to think "all fat is bad," and encourage eating too little fat? There is some interesting research being published suggesting that full fat milk might be associated with lower weights in kids and with better health outcomes in post MI patients. I could go on but I won't, except to say stop trying to fit nutrition education into a picture, it will never have a good outcome!

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not a problem for most Americans

Posted by JC Carter,

I see that Adam Drewnowski (and Marion Nestle) operates from the recommended daily allowance viewpoint of the world. Perhaps they could indicate how many calories somebody would consume if they ate the RDA for the major macronutrients? (under 1000kcal for those playing along).

The current acceptable macronutreinet distribution ranges provided by the IOM show protein has a substantial range of intakes that are ok (actually wider, but have to fit the other macronutreints in somewhere...) and if an individual ate the RDA for protein, and ate the current average requirement for energy, they would in fact eat less than the current range of acceptable protein intakes.
At least ADam is correct in his ideas around protein not being a food, but perhaps he should look into the benefits of consuming a diet rich in protein containing foods, and the impact that would have on the micronutrent content of the diet. Especially when the diet is an hypocaloric diet to reduce bodyweight, something that a lot of Americans currently are doing, and should be doing.

lets not get caught within the trap of "eating too much protein" 'wisdoms' and start focussing on the benefits of food, even those that 'oh my gosh' contain higher levels of protein. Because if we are going along that road, we can also bring up we are collectively eating far too much carbohydrates (RDA is only 130g, and on average the population is almost tripling that) therefore recommending foods such as fruits and vegetables is not recommended, or an issue (/sarcasm)

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