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Out With the Pyramid, In With the Plate: USDA’s New Food Guide

Remember way back when this used to be a running and a public health blog? I know, the memories are fading for me too. Although it may not have seemed like it over the past few months, I assure you the public health nerd in me is still alive and well. So if you come here to read my rambles about all things running, stay tuned for my next post. Because today I want to talk about something a little different…

In case you missed it, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has done away with the traditional food pyramid. And in its place, a new icon has been released. Yesterday, Michelle Obama and the USDA revealed a new food guide that’s based on something a little easier for most of us to understand – a plate. (To read the press release, click here.)


This new graphic, which was released along with the website ChooseMyPlate.gov, is meant to be a “new generation icon with the intent to prompt consumers to think about building a healthy plate at meal times.” The plate is the prompt; if you want more information, you are encouraged to visit the Choose My Plate website, which has basic recommendations (including to “eat less” and reduce sodium and fat), examples of foods that are inlcuded in each group, and interactive tools to give Americans even more guidance in planning a healthy diet.

MyPlate is completely different than the past food pyramids. But before I talk anymore about that, let’s take a very brief tour through the food guides of the ages.

{*Please note, I am not a registered dietician. I work in the field of public health. So when I discuss these food guides, it is from a public health perspective.*}

The USDA Food Pyramids Past

Remember this guide from the 90s? This 1992 pyramid is the one I grew up with:

USDA Food Pyramid_1990s.gifAlthough the original pyramid tried to clearly show us how much we should eat from each food group, it was thrown out and revamped in 2005 because of all the criticism it received. Apparently the food industry didn’t really like the fact that people were being told to eat less meat and dairy than grains, fruits, and vegetables (It doesn’t matter that doing so is actually the healthier choice, because we all know that the food industry always has our best interests at heart…{please note the dripping sarcasm}) But even beyond that, nutritionists also voiced concern because the pyramid encouraged Americans to eat too many grains.

So in 2005, USDA released MyPyramid – a new graphic that was supposed to be an improvement. But this one didn’t stick around nearly as long as the first. And I can’t really say I’m surprised. Does anyone really know what this means?

USDA Food Pyramid_2005.png

It made the food industry happy, and apparently tried to show the “whole” picture by throwing in a little stick figure being active. But I’ll be honest – when I looked at that little guy walking up the stairs, my mind never jumped to “physical activity is important!” Instead I always wondered what the heck stairs had to do with the food groups…and why this was all still in the shape of a pyramid anyway. Were we supposed to eat less food when we got to the top of the stairs??

Personally, I think this version was worse than the original. Even though it made some adjustments to the recommendations, the whole thing was just way too complicated.


It seems like the federal government has taken all those criticisms to heart. This new version is incredibly simple. It is meant to convey information quickly, in a way that most people can relate to and understand. Instead of giving foods a hierarchy or breaking them down into a specific number of recommended servings, it just simply shows you – this is what a balanced plate should look like.

The graphic is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines that were released in January, which encouraged us to eat less salt and fat, and more produce.

Major Differences in Recommendations

  • Fruit and vegetables make up half of the plate
    • This is a huge increase from previous recommendations
  • The “Meat & Beans” group has been changed to just “Protein”
    • Meat isn’t even named on the pyramid. This shows an understanding that there are more ways to get protein than just by eating meat. The new guidelines even reflect the various forms of soy protein that are available and encourage Americans to eat lean meats only.
  • Protein is clearly recommended to be a smaller portion of the overall diet
    • Hopefully this will encourage a change in the standard American diet. It would be great if the standard meal shifts from a huge piece of meat and a small side of vegetables to the opposite – a huge plate of produce with a small side of meat (or other protein).
  • Milk & Cheese” has been changed to “Dairy,” and it’s shown on the side of the plate
    • The new graphic shows dairy as a side, which seems to de-emphasize it.

Overall Thoughts

Overall, I think the new MyPlate icon is a huge improvement over the previous food pyramids. It un-complicates things and serves as an easy visual reminder for the average family. Once you know what the colors mean, you don’t even need to be able to read to understand it. Kids can follow the colors to build their plate. The campaign as a whole also emphasizes choice – Choose My Plate gives recommendations and guidelines, with the overall goal to make “the healthy choice the easy choice” (this is a phrase you hear a lot in the public health world).

I do find it interesting, however, that the administration didn’t really address that there are other ways to get calcium, etc than by eating dairy (like they did with the protein group). Especially in light of the increasing popularity of the vegan diet. I would be interested to see how vegans feel about this.

Additionally (without going off on too much of a tangent), I think the huge issue of conflict of interest within the USDA needs to be addressed. The same agency that is giving us recommendations about what to eat also supports the very things it tells us to eat less of. There are large subsidies to farmers for things like dairy, sugar, and feed grains (for livestock). And that’s not all. Remember this New York Times article from back in November about Dairy Management - a marketing creation of USDA that teamed up with Domino’s to create new pizzas with 40% more cheese? So while telling us to eat less fat, USDA had also created a marketing group to promote it. The article is a clear example of the competing interests of money and the protection of public health that exist within the agency. And until those are removed or another agency is put in charge of the health guidelines, the health crises in this country will not be fixed.

Finally, I think it is important to call the new graphic what it is – an educational tool. Although I don’t think the administration is touting it as such, I believe it needs to be said – MyPlate is not the solution to the obesity problems in this country. Yes, it is a very useful graphic to help people make smarter food choices. But unfortunately, that graphic alone is not going to fix what years of bad habits and unhealthy environments have created. We can recommend that people do all sorts of different things. I can preach the value of a plant-based diet and regular physical activity all I want. But until we change the environment, we aren’t going to make any sort of lasting change in this country. People aren’t going to eat more fruits and vegetables because you tell them to. They will start eating more if they become affordable, and easily accessible. They will start exercising more if we make it easier and safer for them to be physically active where they live. And our health as a nation will only improve when we start subsidizing things other than corn and soybeans, when we make fresh food cheaper than fast food, and when federal agencies don’t answer to food lobbyists.

And with that, it’s time to get off my soapbox. Now I want to know – what do you think of MyPlate? A huge improvement, or another useless guide? Is it easy to read? And will it really guide people’s decisions when in the grocery store or when cooking meals for their families?


18 Responses to Out With the Pyramid, In With the Plate: USDA’s New Food Guide

  1. Love this post! I love your running posts too, and it’s nice to see a mix of public health and policy stuff mixed in. I’m a city planner and I work on land use/transpo issues so I really like you last paragraph about the importance of creating environments that are conducive to active living, not to mention federal policy issues and food politics that limit access to healthy food in many communities.

    I also think MyPlate is a big improvement; I’m really glad to see meat replaced with protein, and in the next go-round it would be great to see dairy replaced with calcium.
    Kathy @ newlywedindc´s last post ..Recap- Anniversary at Volt

    • My current job has given me an entirely new respect for planners. I think the field of planning is vital to protecting and improving public health. And the funny thing is – planners seem to have understood this all along!! You guys have been doing things for years that us public health folks are only just starting to think about.

  2. Things I like.. Easy and Simple to understand…
    Things I dislike… Yeah it tells you to eat less but you could make a case that you could use a serving platter and make these portions and think you are on track! (not that most of us would do that, but having no size guidelines I see as a downfall)
    I also really think the fact it just says grains and not whole grains is a downfall. Again you could be just having white bread and white rice and think you are on track..
    Finally, it may just be because I live with a diabetic and we keep any grain to a minimum even if its a whole grain.. I think the grain protion is HUGE!!!!

    • Excellent points! Overall, I don’t think there’s a very good understanding of what makes up an actual serving of something – especially since a lot of our references (like restaurant meals) are so huge.

      And I agree with what you said about the grains too. Obviously the type of grains you eat make a huge difference, and due to the many different dietary considerations that people have, that amount of grain might not actually be healthy.

  3. This is one of the best write-ups I’ve seen on this so far – thanks! I like the new graphic – like you said – it’s a tool – one of many. It won’t and can’t and shouldn’t represent every dietary constraint out there – some people don’t eat grains and they’re healthy, some don’t do dairy and are healthy – but I think the point is that if you do choose to follow this, you should have a reasonably balanced diet.
    Tanya´s last post ..May is Out June Goals are In

    • Thank you! And I like the point that you brought up – a national model can’t possibly represent every type of diet.

  4. Lauren: You really understand this issue and it shows in your writing. I can see that you have put a lot of research into this and you know the issues. I think that your last paragraph sums it up nicely, especially your last sentence. It always comes down to who is the most powerful lobby with the greatest amount of money to spend.

    Great blog as always!

  5. I think the myplate guide is a tremendous improvement to the pyramid and much easier to read. That being said, it’s going to take some active campaigning and prayers to get people to actually use this and start eating healthier…
    Jeni @ stepping out´s last post ..Saying Goodbye

  6. I love the new my plate! And honestly just because it’s SO simple. Sadly, the average consumer cannot break many things down but I truly believe this visual is easy to understand. I mean, we all stare at plates at least three times a day so I think everyone will get it. Though maybe there should also be a bowl option ;)

    I also love the new “protein” group instead of meat. I know this is important to vegetarians, and even people like me who just really don’t care for meat. With a little more education, it can slso help people save so much money since obviously beans and eggs are much cheaper than beef.

    I’m glad they kept dairy though. I believe it’s such an important food group. I’ve never tried to go vegan, but I am lactose intolerant and it’s nearly impossible to get my calcium needs without taking a supplement.

    Great post, Lauren!

  7. What a great post! I agree with you on many of the points you made. I think this visual representation is the best that has been put out so far and that its easy translation for kids will be helpful. This should be something every family prints out and hangs on their refrigerator or kitchen cabinet and uses to help put food on their plates at meal times.

    I also FULLY agree with the policy side of this. This small change – while a great one, I think – is focusing on the end result and not on the foundations that lead us to eat the way we do. In my opinion, changes like this will serve as a guideline for families who have already decided to eat more healthfully but aren’t sure how to do it. It does NOT address the millions of people and families that are caught up in a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating and do not yet have a desire to change. In order to address the nationwide obesity epidemic, change needs to be made on large scales before it can affect people on the individual level.

  8. Hmm, I think I like it! It definitely is more simple (I really didn’t like the last food pyramid very much), and seems like a good “tool”!:)
    Erin @ Until You Tri´s last post ..A Wedding and A Bike Ride

  9. I really enjoy your public health posts! It always shows how passionate you are about it, and you obviously know so much.
    It seems to me the plate concept is easier for all people to understand and actually implement in their own lives. Showing people how to fill their plates seems much more direct than the pyramid concept (and that one with the stairs is just totally confusing…) At the same time, you make great points as to why this does not even come close to fixing our obesity problem. And it is pretty disheartening to know that the USDA’s intentions are so driven by making money, when they should be looking out for the health of Americans.
    When I think about the people I know who are overweight or struggling with diet-related problems, it just hurts my heart. And you’re right, you can’t just say “eat more fruits and veggies” – it’s much more complicated than that and will take much more than changing the face of the food guide. But I do see the positives in it, and I think if we can make small changes in any way we can (like you are making by posting things like this on your blog!) then we need to focus on that. I need to remind myself that helping one person become more educated and want to take steps toward health is a big accomplishment, and just because the problem is so big and complex, doesn’t mean we should all feel helpless. Great post, Lauren! You write so well about these issues.
    Corey @ the runners cookie´s last post ..In a hurry

  10. Thanks for sharing! Did not even know about this (but granted I have been living in bed sick with a cold). I think it is a great switch but I still want emphasis on what works for you and what you need to do. I think there needs to be emphasis and more coverage for people to see nutritionists at least once or twice a year to find out what they need to do. Everyone’s needs are different!
    Stephanie´s last post ..Waterworks McGee

  11. Haha! Somehow I never saw the “new” food pyramid when it came out in ’05. It looks ridiculous. But maybe that’s just because I’m used to the original one. Aanyway, I’m with you on really liking this new plate idea! It makes so much more sense and I think it will help the average consumer! :)
    Rach´s last post ..Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego

  12. Totally agree with you, Lauren! I’m a fan of My Plate because it’s super user friendly (for the most part). My Pyramid and the Food Guide pyramid were a bit more complicated, and this one is more visual. The “protein” label does kind of irk me because a lot of people don’t really understand what that means (lean meat and beans), but I think as a whole it’s a step in the right direction. But really just a step – so much more work needs to be done.
    Kelly´s last post ..On Going Solo in San Fran

  13. I love the new MyPlate icon because it’s so much more approachable to the general public. I had the fun of teaching our old food pyramid to my students and it was always interesting. I think this will definitely make it easier for my little kiddos to understand what a healthy meal looks like. And Pastiche fruit tart counts as fruit, right?
    Becky´s last post ..5K Fun in Foxboro

  14. There are better alternatives: the new Healthy Eating Plate and the Healthy Eating Pyramid, both built by faculty members in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, in conjunction with colleagues at Harvard Health Publications. The Healthy Eating Plate fixes the flaws in USDA’s MyPlate, just as the Healthy Eating Pyramid rectifies the mistakes of the USDA’s food pyramids. Both the Healthy Eating Plate and the Healthy Eating Pyramid are based on the latest science about how our food, drink, and activity choices affect our health—and are unaffected by businesses and organizations with a stake in their messages.-”.’

    Most recently released blog post on our own online site http://healthfitnessbook.comda

  15. Blog posts offers each person to share an opinion on various topics, such as this.

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