USDA to reshape our view of dietary nutrition
Goodbye, food pyramid. Government officials are gearing up to give the nation nutritional advice on a more palatable plateau.
The US Department of Agriculture is expected to unveil a replacement for its much-maligned food pyramid on Thursday morning, removing the rainbow-striped triangle with a stair edge in favor of a simple circle designed to evoke a plate.
âIt would go a long way in producing something that is actually useful for nutritionists and dieticians in the United States,â said James Painter, food psychologist and registered dietitian at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill. The key, he said, is that it would give viewers a quick idea of ââwhat their meals should look like when they sit down at the table.
The tray would have four sections: half the circle would be filled with fruits and vegetables; another section would include rice, grains and other grains; and the rest are said to contain proteins such as chicken and nuts, according to people who have seen the icon. On the side, a smaller circle would represent dairy products – think of it like a drink or milk, a cup of yogurt or (although that’s a bit of a stretch) maybe even a latte.
The federal government has spent decades trying to represent healthy eating in a simple graphic, and it adopted the pyramid in 1992. The product of more than a decade of research, it has put grains at the base, fruits and vegetables in the middle and smaller amounts of dairy and protein at the top. Sweets and other prohibited items appeared at the end with the “use sparingly” warning.
Advances in nutritional science and pressure from food producers led to changes that culminated in 2005 in My Pyramid. Six different bands – representing grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, meat and beans – radiate downward from the top, eliminating what some saw as too much emphasis on grains in the previous design. A stylized snowman was shown climbing the stairs on the left slope to express the importance of exercise. But the icon didn’t show any real food and asked consumers to go online for specific information on what they should eat.
âI call it food-free and useless,â said Marion NestlÃ©, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. âIt was unbearable. You couldn’t explain what the colors represented.
Even the USDA has come to recognize its shortcomings.
âThe pyramid can be confusing and complex for some, and in some cases too simplistic for others,â said Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
The United States is far from the only country struggling with how best to present information about healthy eating.
In China, a five-tier pagoda has separate tiers for starches, produce, protein, dairy, and oils. In Guatemala, a traditional ceramic pot called ola is filled with pictures of pineapples, fish and bags of corn.
Grenada, which itself calls itself âthe spice islandâ, presents its food circle inside a crushed nutmeg. The government of the Dominican Republic displays its nutritional advice inside a mortar and pestle full of eggs, avocados and other foods that stand on a cutting board printed with images of a baby smiling, crawling and sucking a mysteriously detached breast.
Despite this diversity, food icons generally agree on what belongs to an everyday diet: lots of green vegetables, easy with sweets.
“You can’t get two countries to agree on anything politically or socially, and yet they all come up with the same basic idea,” said Painter, who has studied 65 government nutrition icons from around the world. . He said he has long preferred the plate-like diagrams used in Mexico and Britain, which even include utensils for maximum effect.
In its long history of providing nutritional advice to Americans, the USDA has used circles in the past, as well as rectangles, triangles, and other shapes. Its oldest icon, used from 1958 to 1979, consisted of a box with four equal sectors of meat, dairy products, grains, and fruits and vegetables.
Regardless of their form, the diagrams had one thing in common, NestlÃ© said: âFor the first 50 or 60 years, food guides encouraged consumption of American agricultural products. “
Back then, portion control was no problem. Government officials were more concerned about malnutrition than chronic illnesses linked to overweight and obesity, a health issue addressed by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. (Obama will attend Thursday’s unveiling, USDA officials said.)
Even after portion control entered the equation, icons weren’t always at the forefront of the latest nutritional science. For example, the original food pyramid recommended a high carbohydrate diet and made little distinction between healthy whole grains and highly processed products such as white bread. The outgoing pyramid continues to group all types of oils, although some found in plants and fish are now considered good for the heart, while others, including trans fatty acids, can clog arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes.
NestlÃ© said it was impressed that the planned new food plate devotes half of its space to fruits and vegetables, given potential objections from food producers.
âThe Ministry of Agriculture has a long history of liaising with the food industry, and it goes beyond that,â NestlÃ© said. “It’s not going as far as I would like, but it’s pretty brave.”
So far, representatives of professional groups in the food industry are responding positively to the change. Ann Marie Krautheim, a registered dietitian and senior vice president of nutritional affairs at the National Dairy Council in Chicago, said she doesn’t mind that cheese, yogurt and other dairy products aren’t on her plate. same.
âWe really love the way dairy products stand out,â Krautheim said. “It catches the eye and will be a good reminder that a serving of dairy products should accompany every meal.”
Dr David Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner who campaigned against obesity, still sees one pretty big problem: getting people to start eating what’s on that plate.
âThis order of bacon-cheeseburger with fries and a shake is nothing like the recommended plate,â said Kessler, who wrote the 2009 bestselling book âThe End of Overeatingâ. âWe don’t even eat at meals anymore – we eat all day. “
With rates of obesity and diabetes rising, Kessler said, getting people to change their eating habits is a top priority.
âIf we could eat meals the way the new plate suggests, we can reverse this epidemic,â Kessler said.