Problems with the MyPlate Icon
First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced a change from the food pyramid as our government's primary food group symbol in favor of a simple plate icon, called MyPlate. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the new tool stresses which foods to add more of to your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains, while reducing others like sodium and sugary drinks.
One half of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, with whole grains and lean protein on the other half, and a suggested side of dairy. Although the reduction in sodium and refined sugar is never clearly expressed via the plate, the presumption is that we will automatically reduce sodium and refined sugars by reducing the amount of starches we eat and adding more fruits and veggies. On choosemyplate.com, it’s recommended that we compare sodium content in our packaged products and choose the options with lower numbers, and that we opt for water over sugary drinks.
MyPlate is designed to educate Americans on how to adopt healthier eating habits at a time when more than one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack believes that "simplicity is the key" to MyPlate’s success in combating our obesity epidemic. He went on to say, "The food pyramid is very complicated. It doesn't give you as much info in a quick glance as the plate does."
I never thought the pyramid was confusing. Inadequate, yes. Confusing, no. Clearly you could delineate the assignment of portions. It didn’t take a genius. Eat more of the stuff at the bottom of the pyramid. My primary complaint was that the pyramid suggested a diet with carbohydrates and starch as a staple versus veggies and lean protein.
The USDA also introduced a new Web site, choosemyplate.gov, designed to help Americans make better food choices. The guidelines are extremely basic, or should I say simple? We are instructed to “avoid oversized portions,” “switch to low-fat or fat free dairy,” “compare sodium content,” and avoid “sugary drinks” (the two tips I mentioned earlier).
There is no doubt this plate illustration is a more practical and “relatable” interpretation than both the 1992 and 2005 versions of the food pyramid, and thankfully grains are no longer the most encouraged food group. Now they are equal with vegetables.
All that said, I am greatly underwhelmed with this "propaganda" for many reasons. Where to begin…
First, I resent the implication that Americans are stupid. I am fairly confident that I could approach any one of my fellow citizens on the street and, if questioned, they would know that vegetables are healthy and sugar and salt aren’t — without using the “simple” plate icon as a guide.
But if the USDA is going to tout simplicity, I ask, when did vagueness become an asset in achieving ones goals? There is a reason that the saying “knowledge is power” has become a cliché. When I asked my Facebook community for their thoughts on the plate icon, thousands complained and asked questions: What size plate? How should the food be prepared? What kinds of grains and proteins? They aren’t created equal — and so on. After all, if the goal is to combat obesity, the universal rule of thumb is calories in versus calories out, and yet there is no mention of calories on the plate or the Web site meant to accompany it. A serving of beef has significantly more calories than a serving of white fish. A salad covered in dressing can be more fattening than a slice of pizza. Doesn’t seem simple at all to me. In actuality, it seems incomplete, confusing, and potentially misleading.
Going back to the obvious fact that fruits and veggies are better than starch and soda, I’m led to ask the question, why are so many of us are still eating so poorly, subsisting predominantly on refined flour, sugar, and cheap meat? Having been on the front lines of this fight for so long, I can say that the resounding response is lack of access and affordability.
The First Lady did admit the above is an issue: “It [MyPlate] can't ensure our communities have access to affordable fruits and vegetables," she said. "That's still work we need to do."While it’s great that she is encouraging those issues as part of the public discussion, they need to be an urgent priority, certainly before the USDA unveils an illustration that doesn’t really add anything new to the picture.
So what “work” is the current administration and USDA doing to combat that issue? Nothing. Wait, I take that back — worse than nothing. They are instrumental in perpetuating and even exacerbating the problem through our existing federal agribusiness policy. Our government essentially subsidizes soda, with literally billions of our tax dollars flowing to genetically modified corn in large part to produce high-fructose corn syrup. The message it sends to its citizens with MyPlate, however, is to “drink water instead of sugary drinks.” What’s also an infuriating contradiction is how the plate doesn’t want us to drink sugary drinks, yet the USDA has no problem with the fact that millions of children drink chocolate milk at schools on a daily basis. Unless the government plans on matching crop subsidies to the recommendations of MyPlate (that is, subsidizing fruits and vegetables, rather than corn and soy to make nutritionally inferior processed garbage), nothing will change. In fact, the problem will only continue to get worse.
What I also find worrisome is the not so obvious, but clearly present, political agenda of Big Food. Take the recommendation for a side of dairy, for example. There’s a political lobby at its finest. Non-organic dairy is loaded with hormones and antibiotics, making it downright dangerous to consume. Additionally, the majority of ethnic Americans are lactose intolerant.
If the dairy side dish is intended to add protein, that wouldn’t be necessary as that macro-nutrient is already accounted for on the plate. If the side dish was intended to add calcium, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and fortified dairy alternatives have as much if not more calcium than traditional dairy.
Or how about the utter lack of concern for our overall health? Just because one is skinny does not mean they are healthy. Where are the guidelines warning Americans about avoiding artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup (a.k.a., corn sugar), and dangerous preservatives like MSG, nitrates, nitrites, and more, all of which are linked to cancer, heart disease, cognitive dysfunction, infertility, diabetes, and so on? The answer: not present because that would alienate Big Food. Instead of working with these companies on improving the quality of their ingredients, MyPlate chooses to ignore the issue entirely, hoping we might never question the difference — and importance — of food quality like we do quantity. Awesome.
Additionally, some of the content on the MyPlate Web site is downright patronizing, insensitive, and ignorant. Take the tip of the day, for example. It tells us to “Consider convenience when shopping. Buy pre-cut packages of fruit (such as melon or pineapple chunks) for a healthy snack in seconds.” Is the implication that we are too lazy to cut our own fruit? Seriously?! Anyone who does the grocery shopping knows that fruits that are pre-cut and packaged are more expensive than fresh fruit. And any nutritionist will tell you fruit that’s pre-cut is significantly less nutritious because the fruit has oxidized and lost nutrients in that process. Hence the reason fresh local fruit is always the better choice for your wallet, the environment, and your health.
Bottom line, we need real change. Now.
The impact of the American food system on our economy, health care, energy crisis, environment, and even our foreign and trade policies is significant.
And yet, as it stands, what has been done so far is the equivalent of playing musical chairs on a sinking ship. Instead of digging in and addressing the issues at hand with POLICY that promotes health, the USDA attempts to distract us with colorful pictures and press releases that try to pass off swampland as beachfront property.
Mr. President and First Lady, while it’s true that you did not create our obesity and health crisis, the food and agriculture policies you’ve inherited are in shambles. I urge to you cease perpetuating the problem by constructing and employing food policy that is more than a Band-Aid on a badly infected wound.
Here are a few suggestions from myself and top experts like Michael Pollen and Maria Rodale:
Re-allocate our food subsidies to support organic farms so fruits and vegetables will be affordable for the masses, and tax the hell out of the Monsantos of the world who are badly polluting our environment with pesticides, herbicides, and rogue genes from genetically engineered crops. Start focusing on the quality and diversity (and not merely the quantity) of our calories. Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: Farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill-speak for fruits and vegetables.
The USDA estimates that Americans throw out 14 percent of the food they buy; much more is wasted by retailers, wholesalers, and institutions. All of these resources could be recycled for the greater good. Initiate a program to make municipal composting of food and yard waste mandatory, and then distribute the compost free to area farmers. This would shrink America’s garbage dumps, preserve our dwindling fresh-water resources by cutting the need for crop irrigation, reduce toxic fossil-fuel fertilizers, and improve the nutritional quality of the American diet.
Decentralize the food system by building an infrastructure for a regional and local food economy — one that can support diversified farming (as in not corn and soy) and shorten the food chain, subsequently improving the quality and reducing the cost of healthy food, especially as high fuel prices drive up the cost of distant out-season-food. Despite the lack of government support, today in America there’s a skyrocketing demand for local and regional food. Farmers’ markets have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market. Community-supported agriculture is blossoming as well: There are now nearly 1,700 community-supported farms, to which consumers pay an annual fee in exchange for a weekly box of produce. The local-food movement has boomed and will continue to grow, but imagine what it could do with a little government support.
Here are a few simple ideas that could help these programs grow:
Provide grants to cities for building year-round indoor farmers’ markets.
Require that some minimum percentage of government food purchases from school-lunch programs, military bases, or federal prisons go to producers located within 100 miles of institutions buying the food.
Create incentives for hospitals and universities receiving federal funds to buy fresh local produce.
Help out the family farmer by restructuring food-safety regulations so they are matched appropriately to the scale of the operation. This way, the small producer selling direct off the farm or at a farmers’ market is not regulated as though they are a multinational food manufacturer, which has significantly impeded their ability to turn a profit.
Require that government food-assistance dollars be spent on real food, not processed crap masquerading as food. The government prohibits the purchase of tobacco and alcohol with food stamps. So why not prohibit the consumption of equally toxic crap like high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats that have infiltrated our food supply in garbage like Twinkies and Cheetos? Create nutritional requirements food must meet in order to qualify for these programs, and subsequently tax the products that don’t meet this minimum requirement. We tax cigarettes — why not junk food?
I could go on and on, but since I am not running this ship the onus falls upon your administration. The American people are savvy, not simple. We are paying more attention to food today than ever, and we will not be placated with platitudes. I hope when the election year of 2012 rolls around you will have a real plan of action that tackles the serious issues we face. I for one am eager to hear it.
In the meantime, we the people must continue to be proactive in this solution by educating ourselves on all the facts and questioning the current state of state. We must demand change from our representatives in every level of government, from federal to state to local. Let them know that we are watching, taking notes, and doling out repercussions in the form of our support or sabotage of their candidacy. We must be personally accountable by prioritizing our well-being and voting with our dollars on sustainable products that improve our health and that of our planet. (Check out localharvest.org for resources.)
We have got to stay on top of and protest against critical issues that present serious risks to our health, like the misuse of antibiotics on factory farms and the deregulation of agriculture and farming through the subtle sanctioning of genetically engineered meat and crops that go unlabeled into our food supply. And most importantly, do not forget, we are the government. It exists to serve and protect us, the people of the United States of America. We pay the bills up in this house and we have every right to a say in how those dollars are spent. Join me in sending a message with our voice, our vote, and our pocketbooks that apathy and corruption will not be tolerated.