USDA Food Pyramid is Out, Food Plate is In

A two-decade old icon of healthy eating--the food pyramid—is now ancient history. In what the US Department of Agriculture calls a “monumental effort” to improve the nation’s diet amid the obesity epidemic, the government has dished up a new plate-shaped graphic with massive fanfare from the Obama administration.

The new symbol, which is accompanied by a new website, reportedly cost $2 million to develop. You’ll see the plate everywhere—restaurants, grocery stores, schools, workplaces and online— since the government hopes it will soon become as familiar as the pyramid, recognized by more than 80 percent of Americans. The White House is spearheading the launch of the icon, aimed at boosting awareness of new federal dietary guidelines issued in January. The easy-to-understand graphic augments Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative.

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What does the plate symbolize? The icon, which resembles a pie chart or pizza, is sliced into four colorful wedges to illustrate the amounts of each food group—fruits, vegetables, grains and protein--the USDA advises. Half of the plate is covered with fruits and vegetables, the cornerstones of a healthy diet. According to the NY Times, a smaller circle next to the plate represents dairy products, such as a glass of low-fat milk. The idea is to suggest that what we put on our plate makes a key difference to health.

What’s behind the symbol swap? Introduced in 1992, the food pyramid sparked controversy, with the meat and dairy industries contending that it stigmatized their products by placing them near the top (foods to eat in smaller portions). A 2005 update  called MyPyramid, issued with the motto, “Steps to a Healthier You,” showed a stick figure climbing the pyramid, whic h was redesigned with a jumble of food images at the base. Nutritionists deemed the 2005 version confusing and all but useless since it didn’t provide visual guidance on how much of each food to eat.

What’s the government’s new dietary advice? The USDA has developed six steps to healthy eating to be released along with the food plate icon:

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  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Eating more of these foods can save your life. A study of more that 313,000 men and women reported earlier this year that for each extra serving of these fruits and vegetables people ate daily, risk of fatal cardiovascular disease shrank by four percent. People who ate at least eight 2.8-ounce servings a day had a 25 percent lower risk than those who consumed fewer than three portions. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps you slim down, since these nutrient-rich, low-cal foods are filling.
  • Avoid supersized portions. One simple trick that helps with portion control is to use smaller plates. 12-inch plates are now commonplace—and a factor in the obesity epidemic. Switching to an 8-inch plate could help shrink your waistline and risk for chronic diseases.
  • Enjoy tasty meals, but eat less. An ongoing study of Okinawans, who have one of the world’s highest rates of people living to age 100 and beyond, reveals a key factor in why they live so long: the cultural practice of “hara hachi bu,” only eating until they feel 80 percent full.
  • Switch to low-fat or fat-free dairy products. You’ll get the calcium and vitamin D (in fortified products) that you need to maintain strong bones with fewer calories.
  • Read labels and pick foods with less sodium. While the government urges shaking the salt habit, there’s now medical debate about how helpful this is for people without high blood pressure—a disorder that affects one in three American adults. In May, a study published in Journal of the American Medical Association reported that healthy people who consume the least sodium don’t have any heart-health advantage over those who eat the most. However, the findings are controversial and some nutritionists question the methodology.
  • Quench thirst with water instead of sweet drinks. Not only are sugary beverages fattening, but a recent study linked them to 14,000 new cases of heart disease, 75,000 new cases of type 2 diabetes, and 7,000 premature deaths over the past decade. What’s more, swigging just two sugary drinks a day hikes diabetes risk by 26 percent—an excellent reason to shun soda and wash down your next meal with a cool, refreshing glass of water.

Don't be fooled by fad diets: read the reviews of 23 diet plans.


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