As a registered dietitian and certified trainer, one of the most common questions I get is “What should I eat?” To me, that’s a clear indicator that people are getting mixed messages about nutrition, despite the plethora of information out there. Well, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new MyPlate, which essentially replaces the food guide pyramid, is certainly a step in the right direction. After all, how do you translate colored slivers of a pyramid to actual food choices?
The MyPlate icon does have few shortcomings, in my opinion, but I’ll discuss that a bit later. First, let’s focus on the positive. I love the message to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies and I must say – I’ve been giving this advice for some time now. EVERYONE would benefit from doing that, and it’s NOT just because fruits and veggies are more nutritious. That’s a no-brainer. The fact of the matter is, IF you did this, you’d fill up on fewer calories and you’d stay full longer, which translates to easier weight control. And who doesn’t want that? Weight loss is hard enough. Another message the new icon sends is to eat balanced meals. That is, about a quarter of your meal from protein and slightly more from grains like rice and wheat products. Protein is a powerful hunger manager. It helps you stay full better than fat and carbs, but there’s no need to eat a high protein diet. The MyPlate also shows us that carbs are important – unlike many of the marketing messages that say carbs are bad. Certainly some carbs are better than others, but the issue for most people is portion size and excess calories. There are a few other messages that go along with MyPlate and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which I like:
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversized portions.
- Fill half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make sure at least half your grains are whole grains.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.
- Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals ― and choose the foods with lower numbers.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Now for the shortcomings. The icon doesn’t address the types of protein to consume. Fish, skinless poultry, beans and nuts are much better choices than bacon, red meat and other processed meats like ham and sausage. (I personally don’t consider hot dogs real food.) Another missing message is the type of fat to consume. Fats from plant sources certainly have their health benefits, especially for heart health, while butter and trans-fat are detrimental to health. I do like the small dairy symbol, kind of. It’s relevant to kids because they need the extra calories, calcium and vitamin D for growth and development, but I don’t like it because many adults are lactose intolerant, which means drinking milk at each meal isn’t practical – especially if you’re trying to reduce calories to lose weight. The new icon completely ignores the benefits of supplementing the diet with nutrients that people need but clearly do not get in optimal amounts. Take omega-3 fats, calcium, vitamin D and iron for example. Most people fall short and quality supplements provide a simple solution for filling those nutrient gaps. I realize the MyPlate isn’t meant to tell people specifically what to eat, but my point is, there’s much more to sound nutrition than the symbol conveys. It is definitely a positive change, and I’m all for simplifying nutrition information. If the symbol helps people, including kids, choose more fruits and veggies – I consider that a huge win.
–Kat Barefield, RD