This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked the old, notoriously confusing food pyramid to the curb and replaced it with a much simpler, easy-to-understand nutritional symbol called MyPlate. The new graphic, which shows a dinner plate sectioned into four wedges representing the four main food groups with dairy on the side, departs from the pyramid in a few important ways: vegetables, rather than grains, get top billing, filling up the largest portion of the plate; the fats, oils, and sweets section has been omitted; and meat is not listed at all, but rather lumped into the section called “protein.”
The icon reflects a shift toward what many doctors and health specialists have long been telling the USDA: a mostly plant-based diet that’s low in fat, sugar, and processed food helps combat obesity, cancer, and heart disease. And it does so in a way that’s simple and visually compelling enough to resonate with consumers who are, as USDA Tom Vilsack said, “bombarded by so many nutrition messages that it makes it difficult to focus on changes that are necessary to improve their diet.” In addition to upping your fruit and veggie intake, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (on which MyPlate was based) advocates switching to fat-free or low-fat milk and making at least half of your grains whole grains.
The old food pyramid was embroiled in controversy from its inception in 1992. Critics thought the inclusion of a separate category for fats and oils with the instructions “use sparingly” was misleading, since some fats are essential to a healthy diet. Many also felt that the emphasis on grains was a reflection of political and economic interests rather than the interests of the public’s health, since the USDA provides massive subsidies to commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice. The same went for dairy and meat; the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—the organization that drafted a prototype of MyPlate last year called the Power Plate—claims there’s no nutritional need for either since calcium and lean protein can be obtained elsewhere.
The graphic, along with its interactive website, Choosemyplate.gov, which allows visitors to create daily food plans in accordance with the dietary guidelines and assess their food intake and physical activity, will be a cornerstone of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative against childhood obesity. And it’s hard to imagine that her cause won’t benefit from this sleek and simple revamp. Here’s to laying the food pyramid to rest where it belongs: as part of ancient history.