Thursday, June 9, 2011

The fall of our familiar Pyramid yields the same goals made simpler

It’s a top story in the world of nutrition, and yes, I’m joining everyone in blogging about it.  But it’s kind of a big deal.  As of June 2nd, the Food Guide Pyramid, most recently called MyPyramid, has been replaced.  For at least the next five years we have MyPlate.  I have to say, it’s a little strange seeing a plate instead of the familiar pyramid that’s been around, in one form or another, since I was in elementary school.  

The concept is great—to translate the dietary guidelines onto the family’s dinner plates.  The USDA says the MyPlate icon is “intentionally simple;” designed to remind consumers to eat healthfully. I like that it’s now simpler to picture what a healthy meal looks like, in the right proportions, in the form that we see it in front of us. It’s a quick and easy method of meal-planning demonstrating that healthy eating does not have to be overly difficult.  It seems to cross all educational, ethnic and financial boundaries.  But it’s important that we don’t oversimplify.  What types of fruit/fruit products should be on that plate?  What types of meat, vegetables and grains?  And what is the right serving size?  It’s still possible to build a perfectly unhealthy meal using MyPlate.  Say a burger with French fries, fried green beans dipped in salad dressing, ice cream and fruit smothered in syrup…and we all know it could be much worse.

Needless to say, it’s important to further delineate what constitutes a healthy choice for each section of the plate (food group).  The plate must be used, and the USDA agrees, to guide further learning.  The website is a great resource, providing general guidelines for the amount of food to consume from each food group, key concepts, foods to limit and helpful tools for the advanced (and interested) learner. 

But even in this day and age, everyone doesn’t have access to the Internet or use it to its fullest potential.  Everyone may not have the interest, motivation or time to spend navigating the website.  So where will the rest of the population hear the remainder of this information?  Supposedly the unveiling of this new icon is just the beginning; a broader communications initiative is forthcoming.  I just hope it will be enough to compete with the constant badgering of food advertisements through various media outlets.  Otherwise, we’ll be looking for something even simpler in five years.  

And why isn’t the fats/oils group pictured? Research tells us that certain fats are good for us because they help control cholesterol.  The dietary guidelines recommend inclusion of plant fats in the diet regularly.  For me, the absence of this group is a throwback to the 90’s, when fat-free was the fad, and is misleading.  This is one of my disappointments in the new Plate.

The term “discretionary calories” has been replaced with “empty calories,” a popular, but effective dieter’s term for calories without much nutritional value.  Some examples of “empty calories” are sweets and sugars.  The message here is to limit these types of foods and choose more that are a complete nutritional package.  Again, simpler, but perhaps more easily understandable.

I guess the running man (the figure that used to take the stairs up the side of the Pyramid) fell off!  I thought it was a fantastic move in 2005 when physical activity was added to the Pyramid.  This was, and is still, a key message!  A healthy lifestyle is about finding a balance between food and activity.  I’m disappointed that he’s gone.

On one hand, it’s definitely wise to try to simplify the goals of healthy eating, since obviously a lot of people don’t get it.  But on the other hand, is it overly simplistic?  Are we lowering our expectations too much?  Are we promoting laziness? Again, how will people be educated about the best foods to fill that plate? 

All in all, it’s a good start.  The MyPlate icon conveys that healthy eating can be simple—and it can.  That’s really what my blog is about!  I do believe we will see a difference in obesity and disease prevalence if everyone starts eating this way. But it’s also important for people to understand the numbers on the nutrition facts label, especially if combating diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.  We still have to learn more about the types of foods that are healthiest.  For this, nutrition education remains key—and all cannot be cured by the fundamental strategy of MyPlate.  I’m going to continue to root for nutrition education in schools, sponsored nutrition programs for adults, availability of healthy foods at restaurants and exposure of registered dietitians (your partner in making good nutrition and health happen).

Okay…I’m off the soap box.

So give it a shot—try building a meal with MyPlate.  Once you’re familiar with the food groups, it's pretty easy.  It reminds you of what your missing and shows you how to balance your food choices on your plate. 
Here’s MyPlate: 2-3 ounces grilled chicken breast, a medium baked potato topped with light margarine and non-fat, plain Greek yogurt, green beans sautéed in olive oil, steamed carrots, a glass of skim milk and strawberries drizzled with honey.  Easy!  And YUM.  Let me know what you picked by commenting below!  I’d also love to know what you think of MyPlate.

If you have questions about the new guidelines or how to make them fit your lifestyle, please contact me for an individualized appointment or visit my website for more information on my services.