Hello, “MyPlate,” Goodbye Food Pyramid

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Did you ever find the USDA food pyramid confusing? It turns out that many Americans were totally at sea with this model, which for decades was the “official” guide to healthy eating in the U.S. Numerous health professionals also found the pyramid flawed, and even misleading. When it was revised in 2010, the Harvard School of Public Health stated that while it was marginally improved, it still fell short in reflecting significant advances in our understanding of the relationship between diet and health.

How did the old food pyramid mislead us?

In placing a heavy emphasis on dairy products, the pyramid failed to address the fact that millions of Americans are lactose intolerant, and even small amounts of dairy can cause intestinal discomforts, gas, or other problems. Nor was there any reference to alternatives like soy, almond or rice milk, which would be very useful information for many.

Equally problematic was the fact that up to 11 daily servings of breads and cereals were recommended without guidance to healthy choices. This led to an increased national consumption of refined starches like white bread, white rice, processed cereals, and commercial baked goods, which not only add empty calories, but also have adverse metabolic effects and increase the risks of diabetes and heart disease, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

How has the new “MyPlate” improved the situation?

For starters, it’s easy to understand─even for kids. It clearly emphasizes the importance of fruits and vegetables in a healthy diet, so much so that it fills 50% of your plate with them at every meal. According to First Lady Michelle Obama, who was closely involved in the “MyPlate’’ initiative as part of her efforts to prevent childhood obesity, “As long as the plates are half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, we’re golden.’’

Is “MyPlate” flawless?

Not necessarily. While it’s a powerful step forward, there’s room for a stronger message about avoiding refined, processed foods. The U.S.D.A. “My Plate” website recommends that you make “at least half your grains whole grains” rather than all of them. This is misguided in the minds of many health experts, who believe that refined carbs are the main source of our modern epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, pointed out that it also fails to address the difference between dietary fats that promote wellness─like olive oil─and those that impair it, such as trans fats in margarine and fried foods. Willet also stated that protein choices should not all be listed equally, since nuts, fish, and skinless chicken breast are healthier than red meat.

These are all valid points. All in all, however, “MyPlate” definitely takes us to the next level, which offers fresh hope for improved American health in the coming years.

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