Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially released the new food guide for America, and for the first time since its inception, the food pyramid has been scrapped—and replaced with a multi-colored plate. You may or may not agree with the logic behind it, but you’ve got to give the USDA credit: They’re taking strides to replace reductionist nutrition methods with more intuitive, whole-food based nutrition models.
The old food pyramid, which specified the number of servings of each food group a person should consume within a full day, has been replaced with an icon of a plate which is broken down into portioned, color-coded food groups. The point of the plate is to emphasize not the quantity of each food you should eat in a day, but rather the proportion of how much of your meals should come from each food group. The idea is to allow people to get more intuitive with their eating. It’s simply too difficult for most people to track how many ½-cup serving of grains they eat in any given day. But in telling them to just make sure half of their grains come from whole grain sources, it becomes something easier to understand and implement. Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables, then add grains, and add lean protein last. Include a small amount of dairy (or non-dairy calcium source) and the meal is complete. It’s not a bad idea, all in all.
Still, as a trained health-supportive chef, I find there to be areas for even more improvement in the new dietary model. Let’s look at each of the food groups:
The new guide advises to make sure at least half of your grains eaten during the day are whole grains. The guide goes into details for explaining what whole grains are and gives many examples of quality grain sources, such as wild rice, quinoa, millet and brown rice. Well done. But in only recommending that half of the day’s grains be whole, that leaves room for donuts, white bread, muffins, cookies and more—all of which can be reduced or even avoided for optimal health.
Fruits and Vegetables:
The new guide recommends making half of your plate fruits and vegetables. This is a pretty awesome recommendation, except that the guide goes on to explain that your fruits and vegetables may be: “raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned, or dried/dehydrated; and may be whole, cut-up, or mashed.”
So theoretically, half of your dinner plate can be filled with canned fruit salad in syrup, canned creamed peas and canned limp green beans—and that would meet this goal. What the USDA could stand to include is the recommendation for eating leafy greens at least once a day, and perhaps eating raw vegetables (like a salad) at least once a day, so that vital antioxidants and nutrients are sure to be in the diet.
I’ve got to give the UDSA credit for the protein group description. This group includes meat, poultry, seafood, beans and legumes, eggs, soy products, nuts and seeds—the vegan and vegetarian protein sources now being fully included as protein sources. In addition, the guide recommends eating less proteins (something most Americans could really stand to try) and including seafood rich in omega-3 fats on a regular basis. There’s no mention of choosing naturally-raised or organic meats, but in at least recommending the reduction of meats consumed in a meal, I give the USDA props.
Perhaps the most controversial food group of the USDA food pyramid is the dairy group. Despite numerous studies suggesting that dairy consumption does not actually prevent osteoporosis (and that simply eating more whole vegetables does), the government still needs us to get a bit of dairy to be able to sleep at night. Dairy is recommended to be low-fat or fat-free, and calcium-enriched soymilk is considered a food in this group. Many vegans and dairy critics will take issue with the dairy group still being a component of the USDA’s recommendations. My personal stance is that regardless of dairy consumption, the focus for optimal bone health should be on increased raw and leafy green vegetables for maximum mineral uptake.
Generally, I’m pleased with the new food plate. It’s a step towards thinking more holistically about our meals as a complete unit, rather than reducing them to individual components. When the focus becomes even more honed-in on whole and fresh foods from these groups, and less of the refined or processed foods, we’ll have even more hope for a healthier population. In the meantime, I know what my wellness goals are: Eat my veggies, move more, and treat myself to a good night sleep.
Image: USDA's My Plate