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Thursday
Jun092011

My Food Pyramid, MyPlate...My Weight Problem


After a 19-year history in guiding (or attempting to guide) Americans' choices of food, the Food Guide Pyramid has now been replaced — with MyPlate. Will the new face of a “healthy” diet be a step toward solving the obesity epidemic — or is it still missing the mark?

A little history

The first graphic food pyramid was introduced in the late 1980s. It was designed to help people understand what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) thought was a healthy diet. Though it didn’t exactly tell people how much they should eat from each food group, it did include the recommendation to reduce fat intake, which was about the time “low-fat dieting” began gaining popularity.

The next version appeared in 1992 and clearly made starchy foods the foundation of the U.S.D.A.’s recommended diet. Though a higher-carb, lower-fat diet had been recommended since the late 1970s, the Food Guide Pyramid, for the first time, showed how much space grains should occupy in our diets, and how little high-quality protein sources such as meats, poultry, eggs and dairy were being suggested. As well, Americans were encouraged to use fats and oils “sparingly.”

Different versions of the Food Guide Pyramid have been developed over time, but the general message about what we should eat as a “healthy” diet has not changed that much. And, as a society, we continue to become more overweight.

MyPlate

Let’s take a look at the food groups called out in the My Plate icon and see how they’re defined. As you read, you can’t help but wonder how the food industry influences dietary recommendations.

The quoted definitions come straight from the U.S.D.A. website. The italics are mine.

Fruits: “Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the Fruit Group. Fruits may be fresh, canned or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, or pureed.”

A small amount of fruit in the diet is a great alternative to sweets and provides some fiber and vitamins. However, 100% fruit juice and dried fruit are nothing like fresh fruit. Allowing for fruit juice to be considered a source of fruit benefits food manufacturers, but it certainly won’t do much for one’s health. In fact, juice is a highly-concentrated source of fructose, a type of sugar that has come under much scrutiny by leading metabolism experts.

When eating fruit, we recommend people eat three servings of non-starchy vegetables for every serving of fruit as a way to place more emphasis on nutrient-rich, low-calorie foods. The MyPlate icon suggests a much greater fruit intake than this.

Vegetables: “Any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice counts as a member of the Vegetable Group. Vegetables may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut-up, or mashed.”

Not too bad, but here’s another open door to consume all your vegetables through juice instead of whole vegetables. As you walk through the grocery store, look closely at many of the vegetable juices. Read their labels. Though they do contain some vegetables, they often also contain fruit juice to make them more appealing. Once again, it becomes easy to consume unnecessary sugar. Whole vegetables provide fiber and phytonutrients — nutrients often lost in the process of making juice.

Interestingly, according to the MyPlate site, starchy foods such as potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, beans, peas and lentils are included in the Vegetable Group. Individuals who see potatoes as an easy way to eat their vegetables, along with eating the grains recommended in the next section, will often end up eating a lot more carbohydrate-based foods.

Grains: “Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product. Bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products.”

As they have for the past 40+ years, starches continue to be overemphasized in these guidelines. While basing a diet so heavily on starch benefits, the processed food companies who make products with them, they don’t benefit our health very much.

Almost 70 percent of people are overweight or obese. More than 30 percent of people have diabetes. We don’t need to continue focusing on carbohydrates so much. In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that reducing carbohydrates in the diet has a significant impact on weight management and health in general. Many of the foods found in this group contain gluten as well, which may also negatively impact health. Though the U.S.D.A.’s icon has changed, its message remains the same: Eat plenty of carbohydrate — even though there isn’t evidence it’s good for you.

Protein: “All foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds are considered part of the Protein Foods Group. Beans and peas are also part of the Vegetable Group.”

Obviously meats, fish, and eggs are great sources of protein. For some people, non-genetically modified soy can work as a protein alternative, although most soy found in the store is genetically manipulated. Purchase organic when possible.

What’s really interesting is the fact that beans and peas count as a protein source. However, they also have a lot of starch. According to the MyPlate concept, a person could fill some of his/her plate with fruit, beans, potatoes and tortillas, and think it’s a healthy meal. The only decent protein source would be in the dairy. Protein plays such a critical role in health, weight management and even aging, it’s unfortunate it isn’t given the significance it deserves.

Many people will likely miss the “selection tips” area on the U.S.D.A. site for proteins, where they continue to stress “lean” or “low-fat” meat and poultry. In fact, the MyPlate system considers the fat from these protein sources in the same category as sugar: empty calories. Looking at natural fats as equivalent to sugar is another way to continue pushing people away from natural foods and make modified, reduced fat, processed foods appear healthier.

Dairy: “All fluid milk products and many foods made from milk are considered part of this food group. Most Dairy Group choices should be fat-free or low-fat. Foods made from milk that retain their calcium content are part of the group. Foods made from milk that have little to no calcium, such as cream cheese, cream, and butter, are not. Calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage) is also part of the Dairy Group.”

Once again, the “fat-free” and “low-fat” recommendations appear without any rational reason. Low-fat and fat-free dieting hasn’t worked since it became popular decades ago, yet it still appears in our dietary recommendations. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the time or interest to look at the scientific reasoning behind this outdated recommendation. What they’d find is there is no good reason it.

As for dairy being essential, we’ve covered this topic before. If an individual does not have intolerance to dairy, it can be a good source of protein, especially if it comes from grass-fed cows.

Summary

Dropping the old Food Guide Pyramid for a new MyPlate icon might make it appear the guidelines have changed, but they haven’t changed much. The guidelines still suggest low-fat and fat-free foods, recommend excessive amounts of carbohydrates and do little to help steer people in the direction of what research has shown best supports long-term health, healthy weight and optimal physical performance. A positive of the icon is seeing how much of a plate should be covered in produce and fruit, although it sill might not stress enough the importance of non-starchy vegetables.

With a little investigation, it isn’t difficult to find a diet focused around an abundance of non-starchy vegetables, plenty of protein, healthy fat, and carbohydrate based on physical needs supports weight management and health the best. The original (and revised) Food Guide Pyramid missed the mark. In many ways, so does the MyPlate concept.

If people focus on the foods that provide satiety, support lean body mass, and deliver significant amounts of nutrients, they’ll more easily be able to manage their weight without needing to count calories. If we eat the foods we should, calories tend to take care of themselves. The pyramid to the left is what we use at Life Time to help guide people toward dietary choices, which research has shown helps optimize health, weight and performance. You can read more about it in our free E-Book, Eat Well. Live Well. 

Share thoughts and comments below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (13)

It's a start in the right direction. I like the use of a plate could help educate on portion sizing, if half your plate is vegetables you are on the right track :) . I'd like to see the grain portion dramatically reduced and healthy fats added. It was time for an update. They got close but still are off a bit I think.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Thanks for the article. I also like the potential for portion control through the visualization of a plate. Having struggled with my weight for my entire life, I also agree with expressed concerns that potatoes and corns are considered vegetables. It's always a pet peeve of mine when a resturant serves corn as the vegetable on a buffet. One thing that I don't see addressed here is what is a portion size and does it very from age to age. Should my 8 year old daughter be expected to eat the same amount I eat? Schools educate kids on the number of servings, but repeatedly fail to address serving size. Looks like MyPlate makes the same mistake.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

I was totally amazed with 'My Plate'. If I follow the guidelines, half of my diet can be simple carbs. I can feel my waist growing as I contemplate the options.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjulie

I really like Lifetime's E-book, Eat Well Live Well. It has lots of good information and was easy to understand.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTam

Let's keep in mind that MyPlate is geared towards a wide spectrum of people- everyone from fast food junkies to vegans, from elementary children to the elderly. On the defense of the USDA, it's hard to create a set of dietary guidelines suitable for all populations.

First remember, a large portion of the American society eats only "junk food" and drinks only soda and visits a fast food establishment once a day. These same individuals are lucky to get even ONE serving of a fruit or a vegetable. They eat mostly all refined grains and consuming a food that contains calcium would be a rarity. Would it not be progress to see these individuals drinking 100% orange juice rather than an orange soda? Or having a slice of whole grain bread rather than a donut? Or a glass of milk rather than a milk shake? or a baked potato rather than French fries? No, those choices might not be "optimal" for weight management but they would certainly be progress for those who are in need of some nutrients in their diet. Whatever happened to the idea of taking small steps to improve our health?

Secondly, we can't forget completely about the population who chooses to eliminate animal proteins from their diet, whether the decision is for humanitarian, religious or other reasons. The dietary guidelines must also consider their needs for protein, thus the inclusion of beans, peas, and soy in the protein group. Do we not sound narrow minded to suggest that only animal products be listed in this food group?

Generally-speaking, we have to remember that a large portion of our society is undernourished, uneducated or may not even speak English; therefore, we must keep the dietary guidelines simple. If we start to break it down to what vegetables are healthy and what fats are better than others and what grains contain gluten, we then start to over-complicate things. When things start to get complicated, that's when people-especially those people who may read at a 5th grade level or who consider that one serving of fruit juice or that slice of whole wheat bread to be success- start to shut down.

Is the new MyPlate perfect? No. Could it be improved for the sake of weight-management? Yes. Is the majority to whom MyPlate is geared eating close to any of our recommendations (either USDA's or LTF's)? No. Is it a step in the right direction for someone with an extremely nutrient-depleted diet? Yes. Overall, we, Americans, have a long way to go to cure our obesity epidemic- certainly a lot more than a colorful plate of food suggestions can handle.

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKristi

What's interesting is that there's no guideline about the number of meals per day that should be on the plate -- or number of servings per day per item on the plate. It's still confusing, but less so than the pyramid, IMHO.

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulia

It seems to me that like all of the previous suggestions, it suggests eating more foods we know to be healthy and less of those we know are not healthy. You have to wonder if those most at risk will see the new guidelines. Also, as long as nutrient-poor food is cheaper or easier to prepare than healthier food, we will continue to have health issues.

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim

The article says there is "no good reason" for recommending non-fat or low fat dairy products. How about saturated fat and cholesterol?? I'd say that is a pretty good reason.
Yes, I agree that the "low fat" concept in general is over simplified and lends itself to marketing processed "low fat" foods, the introduction of which is clearly not helping Americans lose weight as a whole.
I would like to see some discussion of "good fats" vs. "bad fats" in the model. It would make things more complicated but I think it is pretty important.
The grains section also doesn't discuss whole grains vs. highly process grains which I think is also a significant omission.
BTW, did you know that Lucky Charms is made with whole grain? Yep, that's what the box says!!

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Many years ago I read that the "food pyramid" was created to help farmers sell their products. That was why it is carb or grain based. It was made up by a room full of lawyers to help their clients the farmers. I don't know if that story still exists. It would be a good investigation.

June 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFran

@Amy. I just wrote an article on saturated fat and cholesterol, which will post on the site Sunday morning. The short answer is that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol have not been shown to be detrimental to health, cause weight gain or increase the risk of heart disease. The article will have more detail, and a link to a great presentation on the subject. Gary Taubes covers it well in Why We Get Fat as well, which is discussed in the recent book review. Hope that helps.

June 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

Your point is brilliant and I can’t agree with you more. In fact, I have been following your blog for a long time and what you write is rather informative.

As a vegan I'm really feeling left out by a lot of the articles I'm reading. And yet, through all the meat-pushing, I've never read anything broaching the issue of high- protein diets & loss of bone density...

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMe

@Me: High-protein diets enhance bone density. It is a myth that they reduce bone density. The myth stemmed from the idea that protein digestion requires a higher level of acid to break it down, which requires minerals to offset the acids. The thought was that the minerals would come from bone. To the contrary, research shows higher-protein diets increase bone density (http://lifetime-weightloss.com/blog/2011/3/20/myth-busting-protein.html, http://www.endocrine-abstracts.org/ea/0029/ea0029OC8.2.htm) Controlled studies have shown increased protein does not reduce bone density, though observational studies, which provide little value in terms of cause and effect, have hinted that it does. In addition, as you'll notice from our articles and our Nutrition Position (http://lifetime-weightloss.com/blog/2012/7/14/whats-your-nutrition-position.html), we place heavy emphasis on vegetable consumption. Eating vegetables provide the majority of minerals in our diet, which would offset any potential (though it's never been shown) impact on bone demineralization.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola

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