USDA unveils MyPlate to encourage healthy eating habits

Could a simple plate graphic affect some of America's greatest issues, beginning with childhood obesity? Nutritionists and healthcare experts sound off on the USDA's new MyPlate.

In a live morning Webcast, First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin today revealed MyPlate—the next-gen Food Pyramid that aims to guide Americans toward a healthier diet.

The new food icon, which can be found at, is a "simple, visual, research-based icon that sends a clear and unmistakable message about portion sizes and what should be on the American plate," said Vilsack. The food plate is consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and is a continuation of Michelle Obama's Let's Move project. The plate took many months of USDA, Health and Human Services, and other private and public sector partners working together to develop.

"We realized that we needed something that makes sense not just in ChooseMyPlate.govclassrooms or laboratories, but something that made sense at the dinner table," said the first lady. More than one in three children are obese, triple the rate in 1980. Obama said the new plate is "kid-friendly" and simple enough for children to understand at the preschool level.

"Today is an enormous step in the right direction," she said. "This day was exactly the kind of day I envisioned when we started Let's Move over a year ago. We want to end this country's epidemic of childhood obesity."

In a recent blog, Food Politics author and nutritionist Marion Nestle called the plate's predecessor, MyPyramid, "foodless and useless." Today, Vilsack said the reality of that symbol, released in 2005, is that it's "too complex to serve as a quick and easy guide for busy American families."

The new food plate, by contrast, is more intuitive and easy to use. "In a nutritionist's office, working off a plate with a client will be a lot easier than working off any of the previous graphics," said Nestle.

At, interactive tools and information show how to build a healthy meal based on the 2010 dietary guidelines for all Americans. "Instead of talking about what Americans can't do and can't eat, we need to talk about what they can enjoy eating to be healthy," said Benjamin.

The new MyPlate comes with six statements to encourage consumers to take action on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

What about dessert? "We are not suggesting this is what you should always eat," said Vilsack, noting that the food plate aims to tell you proper proportions of what to eat, instead of what specifically to eat.

Will MyPlate affect the nation's health?

In a press conference following the unveiling, Vilsack said good nutrition affects economic competitiveness, national security issue, healthcare costs and education excellence. Could a simple plate graphic affect some of our country's greatest issues?

"They're gone from overly complicated to overly simplified," said Jackie Keller, nutrition expert and certified professional wellness coach. "They haven't dealt with exercise at all. I don't know how you can talk about eating healthfully if you don't address the subject of exercise. I think it's a huge oversight." MyPlate's precursor, MyPyramid, did include a visual for exercise.

"It wasn't designed to help people lose weight—what it does is address what eating healthy is," said Dr. Wayne Andersen, author of Habits of Health and former critical care physician who co-founded Take Shape for Life, a physician-led health network. This new plate icon may help adults lose weight over time, but will be a slow process, Andersen said. Kids, however, have a chance of losing weight faster because of their higher metabolic rates.

"I would simplify it even more," he said, noting that in his book he shows a nine-inch plate that contains three pieces: 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25 percent protein and 25 percent starch.

Nutritionists also differ in their viewpoints of MyPlate's categories. "The thing I like least is use of the word protein," said Nestle. "Everything else on the graphic is food except for protein. Protein's a nutrient. Protein is not just meat or even poultry or fish or beans. It's also grains and dairy foods, which have their own sector. It's not nutritionally correct."

The plate's prominent feature is 50 percent fruits and vegetables, but "if you are a very literal person, you could think that every plate needs to have fruit and vegetable, and that's not what they're trying to say here," said Keller.

To assist consumers in their food choices, Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition for WebMD, said WebMD plans to create online tools to show examples of the foods you can put on your plate, including a drag-and-drop, build your own plate tool.

It remains to be seen if the food plate will have any effect on the long-term health of Americans, but all nutritionists NewHope360 spoke with agreed that MyPlate is a big step in the right direction. "People need to eat less and they need to eat better, and this guide tells people how to do both," said Nestle.

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