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.
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.
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.
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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.