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Behold MyPlate, the USDA's New Food Icon Behold MyPlate, the USDA's New Food Icon

Behold MyPlate, the USDA's New Food Icon

by Peter Smith

June 3, 2011

 

This morning, Michelle Obama and the United States Department of Agriculture unveiled the food pyramid's long-awaited replacement: MyPlate.

It's less of a photo-realistic plate of food and more of a representational pie chart. The icon is supposed to provide a quick instructive reminder for those of us who aren't trained nutritionists. And it cuts through the noise of eating advice with recognizable tools—a fork, plate, and glass. Obama said:

"When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we’re already asked to be a chef, we're already asked to be a referee, a cleaning crew, you name it, we're on it, so the last thing we need to do is be the nutritionist in our family as well. Parents don't have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken. Or how to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving. That has confounded me as a parent for a very long time. I still don’t know how much protein comes in x ounces. We're all bombarded with so many dietary messages that it's hard to find time to sort through this information. We do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. We do it all the time. We're the ones fixing the plates. As long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins and whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that."

Clearly, the icon alone cannot tell us everything we need to know. It also doesn't address meals outside the home and the actual size of the plate isn't apparent. The overall message also follows a century of scientific-sounding advice from the USDA that emphasizes quantification over the qualitative aspects of eating—geography, tradition, pleasure, and taste. It's hard to find a lot of pleasure in that.

But the icon may still be a small step in the right direction. Arguably, the best thing that could happen in terms of publicizing the federal dietary advice towards less meats (the subtle message in "protein"), no sugary drinks, and more vegetables will be controversy. These are policies worth implementing more broadly. Now, let's hope any ensuing public debate translates into real policy changes.

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