Posted on June 3, 2011 - by

The New Food Pyramid: Where’s the Spark?


Perhaps the lush infographics I’ve been enjoying lately thanks to have me spoiled, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by “My Plate,” the USDA’s latest attempt at a visual representation of a balanced diet. The graphic, released yesterday, replaces the oft-maligned food pyramid,  which was introduced in 1992 as a way to get Americans to eat healthier food but instead became a symbol for much of what is wrong with the American diet: too much grain and carbohydrate, not enough fresh produce.

I understand that the designers were trying to simplify the image as much as possible. It’s meant to be a quick and memorable reference for the population at large, not a definitive guide for food dorks like me. And simplify it they did, to the extent that fats are not shown, sugars are absent, and instead of a recognizable fifth food group, we get the nebulous “protein.” How are we supposed to interpret this category, given that many vegetables, grains, and dairy products are great sources of protein? Where do beans and nuts fit in?

I’m sure the USDA carefully considered these questions and many other nitpicky details in their search for the “right” image, but with simplicity as their guiding principle, opted to focus on pounding a single message home: fruits and vegetables should make up half of what you put on your plate. I love the choice of a plate here (not to be confused with a pie, of course), which people already associate with food, serves as an easy reference point for proportional portion size, and doesn’t place food groups in a hierarchy like the original pyramid did.

Despite its elegance as a symbol, the plate image leaves me cold. It may be easily memorizable, but it isn’t memorable in the way that might inspire healthier, more balanced cooking and eating. It calls to mind math class rather than the dinner table. Until we as a nation stop thinking of healthy eating as a chore and begin to understand it as a source of pleasure, we’re not likely to trim our collective waistline anytime soon.

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1 Comment

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  1. Elizabeth Revels said:

    While I agree that it is lacking, my question is what would actually work. I like when articles pick things apart to be inspected closer, but what would be your suggestion for making it better? I think that while not perfect it does illustrate better than the pyramid the proportions one should eat. I don’t think that fats and sugars should have a separate spot on the plate, but maybe should be shown off to the side like a seasoning/condiment which is how they should be used in a healthy diet. There is room for improvement and I admit I don’t have an alternative to the concept either. Hopefully it will help those who have had a harder time understanding their relationships to food. I agree that it is too simplistic for those who already understand this relationship, but I feel it may not have been meant for us in the first place.