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My Plate

Goodbye food pyramid, hello dinner plate

Farewell, food pyramid. US government officials are dishing out nutritional advice to the nation on a more appetizing platter… The USDA has today unveiled a replacement to its much-maligned food pyramid: a simple, plate-shaped symbol, sliced into wedges for the basic food groups and half-filled with fruits and vegetables.

The circular plate is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four coloured sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yoghurt cup.

Few nutritionists will mourn the passing of the pyramid, which, while instantly recognised by millions of American school kids, parents and consumers, was derided by nutritionists as too confusing and deeply flawed because it did not distinguish clearly between healthy foods like whole grains and fish and less healthy choices like white bread and bacon. A version of the pyramid currently appearing on cereal boxes, frozen dinners and other foods has been so streamlined and stripped of information that many people have no idea what it represents.

“It’s hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information,” said Walter C Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The new symbol has been designed to underscore a central mantra of the US federal government’s healthy eating push: make half your plate fruits and vegetables. And it is expected to be a crucial element of the administration’s crusade against obesity, which is being led by the first lady, Michelle Obama.

Dr David Kessler, a former commissioner of the FDA, has suggested that if the symbol succeeded in getting people to eat significantly more fruits and vegetables, that alone would be an achievement.

“The reality is that very few of us eat like what has been suggested” in government guidelines for healthy eating, Kessler said. “There’s a world of difference between what’s being served and what’s on that plate.”

He called the plate a major improvement over the pyramid. “It conveys the message simply in a way that we all can understand,” he said.

The plate symbol is meant to help educate consumers about the government’s latest dietary guidelines, which were released in January.

Robert C Post, deputy director of the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said the USDA had spent about $2 million in developing and initially promoting the logo, including conducting research and focus groups and creating a website. Some of that money will also be used for the first year of a campaign to publicise the image. He said the agency would use the plate to get across several basic nutritional messages, including urging consumers to eat smaller portions, switch to low-fat or fat-free milk and drink water instead of sugary drinks.

The food pyramid has a long and tangled history. Its original version showed a hierarchy of foods, with those that made up the largest portions of a recommended diet, like grains, fruit and vegetables, closest to the wide base. Foods that were to be eaten in smaller quantities, like dairy and meat, were closer to the pyramid’s tapering top.

But the pyramid’s original release was held back over complaints from the meat and dairy industry that their products were being stigmatised. It was released with minor changes in 1992.

MyPyramidA revised pyramid was released in 2005. Called MyPyramid, it turned the old hierarchy on its side, with vertical brightly coloured strips standing in for the different food groups. It also showed a stick figure running up the side to emphasise the need for exercise. But the new pyramid was widely viewed as hard to understand. The Obama administration began talking about getting rid of it as early as last US summer.

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Source: LA Times, New York Times

Of triangles, circles and other children’s shapes: the Food Pyramid changes again

“Those who have followed our work at Hartman Group know that we have forever been strident critics of the USDA’s assorted versions of the Food Pyramid, as well as other attempts at educating the American public in the area of nutrition and healthy eating.

Far from fans of public criticism, we feel a responsibility to represent the voice of the consumer — especially on matters as important as our health and well-being.

We were among the first to warn that the last refresh of the food pyramid in 2005 would prove unsuccessful and likely have no effect on obesity rates. We knew this because the pyramid was particularly confusing and people do not eat according scientific principles. But more foundationally, because our research always shows that most people are not interested in this source of information, there is little reason to expect any correlated behavioural change.

Consumers will look at these pyramids, they will read them, and they may actually investigate them. But none of these activities will affect their future eating behaviour….

Comment by Harvey Hartman of the influential research company, The Hartman Group. Read more

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