By Janis Jibrin, RD
Can you remember what food groups make up the Food Guide Pyramid and in what order? Neither can I, and I’m a registered dietitian. And neither can a lot of other people, concluded the U.S. Department of Agriculture of their 19-year-old icon; so this June, they ditched it for a new one called “My Plate.” In a press conference presenting My Plate, First Lady Michelle Obama promised it will “simplify the way we convey our nutrition information.”
And she’s right: The plate is simple, with one half of the plate containing two colorful wedges; one labeled “fruit”, the other “vegetables.” On the other side of the plate is a wedge for grains and another for protein. Next to the plate is a little circle for dairy. Easy to remember, easy to follow (Mrs. Obama says that she keeps the graphic in mind when she fills her own plate, and “does a quick checklist to make sure I have a balanced meal.”)
But while the image’s simplicity makes for easy recall, it’s missing the details that truly determine whether your diet is healthy or not. Is it baked chicken with skin removed or fried chicken going into the protein wedge? French fries or broccoli in the vegetable quarter of the plate? If you’re concerned about heart health or following a specific food plan like the Smart Balance® Food Plan, these details are crucial.
For these answers, and a lot of other helpful nutrition information, it’s worth visiting the companion website, choosemyplate.gov. There you’ll not only see lists of the healthiest foods within each food group and find out which fats are healthiest, but also get schooled on portion sizes. And the site even offers you a “personalized plan” that’s based on your age, gender and physical activity level. The plan recommends a daily calorie target and shows you how many servings of each food group you need to meet that target in a balanced way.
I still have a few gripes with the Choose My Plate website, and these are the same complaints I had with the old pyramid website. For example, instead of simply calling a half-cup of cooked pasta, a slice of bread or other grain-based foods “grain servings,” they’re called “ounce equivalents” because they contain an ounce of grains. When your only basis for a serving is whether it has an ounce of grain, calories can be all over the map. For instance, a chart on the site with examples of ounce equivalents lists a small muffin as a serving. Well, that muffin could range from 110 to 200 calories depending on how much fat and sugar it contains. However, the chart is helpful at clearing up serving sizes for more straightforward grain-based foods like pasta and rice.
When I do nutrition counseling I tell my clients that a grain serving is 80 calories of a grain-based food, whether it’s a muffin or pasta, and I give them a list of what that looks like (1/2 cup cooked pasta, 1/3 cup cooked rice, etc.). I suggest that most of their grains be low-sugar whole grains, none fried. They should count a sugary muffin or fried hush puppy toward their daily treat allowance.
This brings me to my other major issue with My Plate—the way treat calories are doled out. The USDA calls them “empty calories” or “discretionary calories.” Instead of simply saying that ice cream should be relegated to your daily treat calorie allowance, the USDA wants you to figure out what fraction of the calories in that ice cream go toward a dairy serving and what fraction to your empty calorie allowance. I kid you not! (In case you’re wondering, out of the 275 calories in a cup of ice cream, the USDA considers 210 of them empty.) Click around the Choose My Plate site a little and you’ll find a chart with examples of foods that are partially empty calories and partially wholesome.
While, technically, the USDA is right, I don’t know anyone who can parse this out without driving themselves crazy! My approach: Just count the entire scoop of ice cream toward your daily treat allowance.
But despite these issues, the new icon is a useful tool, especially when paired with its companion website. Like the First Lady, you can conjure up the image to make a quick check that half your meal is fruit and/or vegetables, and that you took it easy on the starches and protein. And that for at least two meals, you include dairy. With the help of the Choose My Plate website (and lots of articles on this site), you’ll be able to put the healthiest choices on your plate.
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