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Out with the Pyramid, In with the Plate

What You Need to Know about USDA's ''MyPlate''
  -- By Nicole Nichols, Health Educator, with Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian
Sometime during your life, you’ve probably seen that colorful triangle containing a variety of foods and how many servings you need to eat each day. Perhaps you learned about it back in health class, saw it displayed on the cafeteria wall, or glanced at it on the back of your cereal box one morning. That familiar food pyramid (introduced in 1991) was supposed to be our nutrition survival guide in a one-size-fits-all world. But let's face it—many people found the pyramid to be confusing, and felt that it didn't really help individuals know how to plan a healthy diet, one meal at a time. And maybe more importantly, nutrition (and how many servings of food you need each day) is far from one-size-fits-all.

So in May 2011, the USDA finally ditched the pyramid concept in favor of a brand new shape: a circle—or rather, a plate. Their former "MyPyramid" website was also revamped and now redirects to a new online tool:

2005 Food Guide Pyramid

New "MyPlate" Icon

Pyramid vs. Plate: What's different?
While the basic nutritional guidelines for Americans remain the same, the USDA Plate and the old pyramid do have a few noticeable differences: <pagebreak>
Although no single image can possibly convey all the complexities of nutrition and healthy eating, many see the Plate as an improvement over the pyramid of our past. According to the USDA and other food experts, the simple Plate icon is easier to understand. You can look at it once and easily remember what it conveys, and which food groups it includes. Most people couldn't say the same about the complexity of the food pyramid.

Both the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) endorse and support the USDA Plate icon. And SparkPeople Registered Dietitian Becky Hand says that she is thrilled with this new nutrition icon. "Folks can hang the Choose My Plate symbol on their refrigerator as an easy guide to use when planning a meal," she says. "If your dinner plate matches up with the four quadrants and one circle, then you’ll have a great start to a balanced and nutrient-filled meal!"

SparkPeople has always encouraged a balanced diet, including a simple plate method for portion control (found in Dietitian Becky's article "The Bikini Diet" from 2003). We encourage the intake of fruits and vegetables and are happy to see them emphasized so prominently on the Plate. Using a divided 9-inch plate as a way to encourage a variety of foods consumed in the correct amounts is a perfect way to improve one’s diet and reap health benefits. <pagebreak>

Dissecting the Plate
Here's a rundown of the basic messages that go along with the Plate, and how SparkPeople's food philosophy fits into them.

The plate features five food groupings, each represented by their own color. The largest area is vegetables, followed by grains. Dairy is offset to the side of the plate, but if you choose not to eat or drink dairy products, the website also lists calcium-fortified soy milk to be nutritionally equivalent in place of milk.

In addition to the Plate graphic itself, the new icon is accompanied by the following nutritional guidelines that offer more information for healthy eating.
Don’t worry if your favorite meals don’t fit exactly onto the new Plate. Many of the dishes we eat are combinations foods such as soups, stews, casseroles, pizza, stir fries, and burritos. "These foods will require a little dissection," states Hand. While it can be hard to determine the exact portion size of each food group within a meal like a casserole or burrito (as it related to the Plate), simply do your best. The USDA doesn't currently offer guidelines to help Americans dissect their combination meals, but we expect more tips to come in this area very soon.

"Now it is your turn to start planning," suggests Hand. "Is half your plate filled with fruits and veggies? Are you getting at least three servings of whole-grain foods daily? Take a peek in your pantry. Are there foods from every food group available for meal planning? If not, then get out paper and a pencil and start creating a grocery list."

Going out for dinner tonight? Can you put together a meal that includes all the foods in the right amounts from the restaurant menu? Get your children involved in the meal planning adventure, and don’t be surprised when you hear, "Hey, the vegetables are missing from my plate.” Now that will be music to your ears!

Food pyramid and Plate images courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The USDA does not endorse any products, services, or organizations.

American Dietetic Association. "New MyPlate Is a Useful Tool for Consumers to Follow Dietary Guidelines and Eat Healthfully, Says American Dietetic Association," accessed June 2011.

American Heart Association. "American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown Says New USDA Food Icon Is A Positive Step Towards Improving Consumer Health," accessed June 2011.

Hellmich, Nanci. "USDA Serves Nutrition Guidelines on 'My Plate'," accessed June 2011.

The Journal of the American Medical Association. "New Nutritional Icon Steps Up to the Plate," accessed June 2011.

Khan, Amina . "USDA to Reshape How We See Dietary Nutrition," accessed June 2011.

Neuman, William. "Nutrition Plate Unveiled, Replacing Food Pyramid," accessed June 2011.

United States Department of Agriculture. "USDA's MyPlate," accessed June 2011.

Vastag, Brian. "At USDA, a Plate Usurps the Food Pyramid," accessed June 2011.