It's been more than a year and half now since the government's food group symbol transitioned from a pyramid to a plate designed to remind us of the kinds of food (in approximate proportion) that, when regularly consumed, will contribute to healthier eating habits. Most of us are aware of the change by now, and despite our long familiarity with the triangular representation and the different forms it went through over the years, most of us would agree that the more user-friendly graphic information, called MyPlate, is easier to follow.
MyPlate has some pretty solid research behind it and was developed in response to the government's 2012 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which encourage us to eat more healthy foods from categories that include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood, and to consume less sodium, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and refined grains. The guidelines also remind us to balance calories with physical activity in order to help manage weight.
But whether you're a fan of triangles or circles, the difference between the two icons involves more than geometry. The main distinction in the new symbol is the emphasis on fruits and vegetables. The MyPlate graphic reserves only one quadrant for grains (with an emphasis on whole grains) and really focuses on fruits and vegetables, which take up half the plate – more than any other food group.
Most nutrition experts see this as a major improvement since Americans tend to fall short of reaching their minimum 5-a-day servings requirements. If half of the food you ate at each meal was comprised of vegetables and fruits, you'd have no problem reaching 5-9 servings of fresh, frozen, cooked or canned produce each day.
What about fats and oils?
The Pyramid of old included fats and oils with the message to eat these foods rarely or in small amounts. These nutritional components don't show up on the Plate, however, despite the fact that dietary fat is essential to optimal health and some fats are healthier than others. If you find that lack of clarity disconcerting, especially since many Americans consume too much of the wrong kinds of fats, no worries. Just go to the www.ChooseMyPlate.gov site which provides in-depth information on fats and oils as well as added sugars which are also not represented on the Plate.
What about serving sizes?
Unlike the now departed Pyramid, the Plate doesn't depict or otherwise mention how many servings you should eat of any particular food group, or how big a serving should be. Many nutrition professionals have been using a plate method similar to this to educate people for years and have an explanation for this difference: the assumption is that if you eat off of a normal sized plate (nine inches in diameter or smaller), and if you don't pile your food up too high, you're eating a normal, healthy amount for weight management. Of course it helps to know what a "normal sized plate" is -- and now you do.
In a sense, the lack of serving sizes makes the Plate simpler to follow. For more specific amounts of foods needed for children, teens, adults (even during pregnancy and breastfeeding), the www.ChooseMyPlate.gov site allows you to enter your personal data and get an individualized eating plan.
And what about that protein category?
While the Pyramid featured food groups exclusively, the plate mixes in one other element: nutrients. Although protein is part of the Plate icon, protein is actually a nutrient found in various foods, not an actual food group itself. Some people think the addition seems out of place among the foods.
What the USDA has to say about this other difference in the two symbols is that (within the test groups that were part of their research) Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds understood what "protein" meant and that it could come from a variety of sources – like eggs, dairy, beans, soy and other plant-based proteins, etc. – and not just from meat.
Although it's hard to read the minds of the people who brought MyPlate from the research lab to the public, there's always the possibility that they were trying to transform the unwieldy former name that went with the Pyramid – The Meat, Beans, Nuts and Legume Food Group – into something that was easier to remember.
It only matters if people use it
The fact is, it's highly unlikely that any single image can possibly convey all the complexities of nutrition and healthy eating. But for the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association, both of which endorse MyPlate, what the new symbol may lack in terms of detailed explanation it more than makes up for with regard to application in the real world.
For most experts at least, the Plate is simply easier to understand and remember. Hang it on your refrigerator and you'll have a constant reminder that your dinner plate should match up with the four quadrants and one circle of the newer graphic. It may not be perfect, but it's more likely to be remembered and used. And that means that more of us have a better opportunity to enjoy a well-balanced and nutrient-filled meal.
For those of you on Pinterest, The Partnership for a Healthier America, Let's Move! and MyPlate have created a site on Pinterest that has hundreds of tasty recipes for anyone looking for healthier meals. Just go to pinterest.com and search Myplate.
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