MyPlate

  • Author:
    Betty Kovacs Harbolic, MS, RD

    Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is MyPlate? Should this be your plate now?

The quest to improve the American diet has a new icon. In June 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the MyPlate icon. MyPlate replaced the previous MyPyramid image as the tool to help Americans make healthier food choices. The goal is to get people to think about building a healthy plate at meal times.

Picture of the MyPlate icon
Picture of the MyPlate icon

In addition to the MyPlate icon, a web site http://www.ChooseMyPlate.gov is available for more information on building a healthy plate and diet. The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) states that "as Americans are experiencing epidemic rates of overweight and obesity, the online resources and tools can empower people to make healthier food choices for themselves, their families, and their children."

What is the difference between MyPlate and the Food Pyramid?

The importance of a balanced diet dates back to research done in the 1800s. The original research started with data on protein, carbohydrates, ash, and "fuel" value for common foods. In 1902, the man responsible for this research, W.O. Atwater, stated that "the evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear -- perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease." To this day, the guidelines emphasize the dangers of excess.

The first official food guide in USDA publications was published in 1916. In this guide, foods were categorized into five food groups: milk and meat; cereals; vegetables and fruits; fats and fat foods; and sugar and sugary foods. Throughout the years, several other versions of the guidelines would emerge as research pointed out the benefits and risks of specific kinds of foods and beverages.

In 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid was released as the image for a healthful diet. It emphasized foods from the five major food groups: grain group, vegetable group, fruit group, meat group, and milk group. Fats, oils, and sweets were represented at the very top of the pyramid. The message was that each group provided some, but not all nutrients, and no one food group is more important than the other.

Picture of the Food Pyramid
Picture of the Food Pyramid

The Food Pyramid also included a range of servings for each of the food groups. The minimum range was listed for "almost everyone," and the maximum was based on your calorie needs. The biggest problem with the Pyramid turned out to be the servings listed under each food group. Many people are unaware of the difference between a serving and a portion. A serving is a guideline or standard unit of measurement. We need this measurement to help estimate how much someone consumes. The portion is the actual number of servings that you consume. For example, if you eat a sandwich with two pieces of bread you would have two servings from the grain group. Each piece of bread is one serving, so two pieces would be two servings. That means that your portion was two servings of grains. People would mistakenly think that whatever amount they had at the meal was equal to one serving. That could mean that you were allowed a minimum of six sandwiches if bread was your only source of grains! Of course, this is not the case and it would be extremely difficult to maintain your weight if you did that with each of the food groups.

Another criticism of the Pyramid was the way that the foods were listed. Some people saw the large grain group on the bottom and thought that it was more important than fruits or vegetables. Others saw the top as the most important and that would mean that fats, oils, and sweets were the most important part of their diet. Finally, the Pyramid doesn't show that whole grains are ideal, you want lowfat versions of meats and dairy, fresh fruits and veggies are ideal, that you need water, or that physical activity is needed.

MyPyramid was the icon that replaced the Food Guide Pyramid. With this modification of the system, the goal was a more personalized approach to healthy eating and physical activity. The image now had colors representing each of the food groups that were spread across the Pyramid, instead of stacked from top to bottom. A person climbing up the stairs on the side was added to emphasize physical activity. The web site http://www.MyPyramid.gov was added to give details on serving sizes and personalize how many are needed from each food group. The hope was that people would use the online tool and get the needed education for the Pyramid to make sense. Unfortunately, many people found this even more complicated than the original Food Guide Pyramid.

Picture of MyPyramid
Picture of MyPyramid

In the hopes of simplifying the goal of a well-balanced diet, MyPlate was developed. The plate is built off of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and is divided into four sections: fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein. On the side, is an image for dairy. Along with the plate comes "10 tips to a great plate," which are based on the Dietary Guidelines and include the following advice:

  1. Balance calories.
  2. Enjoy your food but eat less.
  3. Avoid oversized portions.
  4. Foods to eat more often
  5. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  6. Switch to fat-free or lowfat (1%) milk.
  7. Make half your grains whole grains.
  8. Foods to eat less often
  9. Compare sodium in foods.
  10. Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Details on each of these and other tips can be found at this government site.

We eat on a plate and not a pyramid so the image of a plate is clearly easier to understand when deciding what a balanced meal should look like. Many believe that MyPlate is going to have a huge impact in changing the American diet. First Lady Michelle Obama announced that MyPlate "is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of foods that we're eating, and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country."

What are the limitations of MyPlate?

Over the years, the guidelines for eating a balanced diet have made many attempts at getting people to eat enough vegetables, fruits, and whole grains without much success. Instead, Americans are gaining weight and moving less. Is MyPlate enough to help change this? Most likely not by itself it won't.

The problem with nutrition is that it's not as simple as "eat this" and "don't eat that." Educating people about good nutrition takes time, and the educational process needs to be individualized for people to listen. Food is a very personal thing with a lot of meaning behind it for many people. There are childhood memories of favorite foods, family recipes, favorite restaurants, and dislikes that all need to be taken into account when you help someone change their eating habits. How can one icon ever do all that?

MyPlate has several limitations when it comes to educating people about a healthy diet. To start with, it shows various food groups that you need in your diet, but you don't necessarily need them in one meal. The meal on this plate is definitely not one that most people have for breakfast. What option do you learn from this if you don't follow what it shows? You also don't usually have fruit on your plate for lunch or dinner so what are you supposed to replace that with? Ideally, lunch and dinner would have half of all of the food from vegetables. That means that you may have a bowl on the side of the plate and some on the plate, not just half the plate full of veggies.

One major complaint regarding MyPlate is the section labeled "protein." In terms of nutrition, it is not accurate to call a food protein. There are six groups that foods are divided into based on the nutrients that they contain. These groups are vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy (milk and yogurt), beans/meats (including fish, eggs, poultry and soy), and fat. There is no food group called protein because protein is a nutrient, not a food. Many people think of meats when you say protein, but that is not the only source of protein. Protein is found in vegetables, grains, dairy, beans, and meats. You eat food to get nutrients; you don't just eat nutrients. The six essential nutrients are protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamin, minerals, and water. The plate would have been more accurate to say "meat or meat alternative."

Another limitation to MyPlate is that you don't really learn exactly what to eat just by looking at what is shown. When looking at the plate, do you realize that whole grains are the goal? Research shows that whole grains are better for our health and weight than refined grains, and yet the plate doesn't show that. Another missing piece is the kinds and amounts of fat that we need. There are fats that help our health (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and fats that harm our health (trans fat and saturated fat), so it can't just be left off of an icon for a healthy diet.

MyPlate is being promoted as the guide for everyone, but it isn't. There has been an increase in the number of people following vegetarian and vegan diets, but this doesn't address their needs. It would have been beneficial to have separate MyPlate icons for them. MyPlate also does nothing to teach people how to lose or control their weight. With a big enough plate and glass, you can follow the icon and still eat too many calories. You can also consume a lot of calories by the choices that you make within each of the groups. For example, you will get many more calories if you have cheese as your dairy instead of skim milk, or high-fat meats instead of lean ones, or canned fruit in syrup versus fresh fruit, and if you add fat to any of the items, your calories can even double!

Finally, by not mentioning sweets, fats, and alcohol, that does not mean that people will not consume them. The "dieting" mentality is often that a food is either good or bad. That would mean that everything on MyPlate is good and anything else is bad. The truth is that most things are allowed in moderation when we are talking about a healthy adult. If someone enjoys their sweets, then the goal would be to help them figure out how to have some without theweight gain or guilt.

The reason for the long list of limitations to MyPlate is because coming up with one icon that teaches everything about eating a healthy, balanced diet is impossible. The question remains whether having an image that gives some information helps or hurts. In the attempt to simplify things, we can sometimes create new problems. Maybe people would be more likely to learn about nutrition if they were told that an icon or image isn't enough to teach them all there is to learn. Or maybe it would help to have each food group have its own image. I think that there will be many more icons in our lifetime. For now, MyPlate is a nice visual that will work best when served with the information on http://www.ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine

REFERENCES:

The American Diabetes Association

The American Dietetic Association

Carpenter, K. J Nutr. 124.9 Sept. 1994: 1707S-1714S.

ChooseMyPlate.gov

Let'sMove.gov

MyPyramid.gov

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Last Editorial Review: 9/29/2015

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Reviewed on 9/29/2015
References
Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine

REFERENCES:

The American Diabetes Association

The American Dietetic Association

Carpenter, K. J Nutr. 124.9 Sept. 1994: 1707S-1714S.

ChooseMyPlate.gov

Let'sMove.gov

MyPyramid.gov

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

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