My Plate: A New Alternative to the Food Pyramid

By Caroline Novas

The new USDA model, MyPlate, replaces the familiar “food pyramid” diagram that underwent several changes in the 19 years since it was first introduced. The MyPlate model shows the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy) in a place setting. It is designed to be easier to understand in the context of a single meal than the more confusing pyramid.

MyPlate

How Does MyPlate Work?

The plate is divided into four unequal sections to represent different food groups.  Vegetables make up the largest section, followed by grains.  Fruits and vegetables fill half the plate while proteins and grains fill the other half.  A small blue circle on the side of the plate represents dairy.  This simple model is designed to make it easy for consumers to see what an ideal meal should look like, without too many restrictive details.

One of the most noticeable things about MyPlate is that it includes no distinct meat section.  Instead, “protein” includes fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds in addition to meat. In addition to recognizing the benefits of a plant-based diet,  another big change is the elimination of the “oils” or “fats” section included in the food pyramids. Critics of MyPlate say it shouldn’t include dairy, which they argue is unnecessary for a healthy diet, and should give information about the size of the plate.

History: From MyPyramid to MyPlate

For over 100 years, the USDA has provided Americans with different types of food guides and pyramids to encourage healthy food choices.  Since 1992, the Food Pyramid has been the dominant model.  The idea behind the original 1992 Food Pyramid was that the foods we should eat most are the ones that form the base of the pyramid, while those we should eat less of are near the top.  However, these guidelines were unclear and difficult to follow.  The Food Pyramid was based on servings, but there was no clear guidance about serving size, and no guidance on the total number of calories recommended per day.

Because of these problems a new pyramid-MyPyramid-was introduced in 2005. Food groups were coded by stripes in widths corresponding to the recommended servings from each group.  All the stripes tapered toward the top of the pyramid to remind people that each food group includes both healthy and unhealthy choices, such as foods with added sugar or “solid” fat.  Although an improvement over the old Food Pyramid, MyPyramid remained confusing and inaccessible to many consumers.  The USDA hopes that MyPlate will provide a simple, easy to understand visual method for consumers to eat healthfully.

How Do I Plan Family Meals with MyPlate?

MyPlate is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides more detailed instructions for planning healthy meals and snacks.  These guidelines are fairly long, but there are some simple points to take away:

  • Control portion size. Serve meals in moderate portions, limit snacking, and try to avoid “seconds.” Don’t leave leftovers on the table for everyone to help themselves.
  • Switch to 1% or skim milk. Avoid full-fat dairy products.
  • Half of grains should be whole grains. Grains are the largest portion of MyPlate, and half of those should be whole grains. Look on labels for the word “whole”-not multigrain or seven grain. Brown rice and whole wheat pasta also count.
  • Watch out for sodium, especially in prepared foods. The Guidelines recommend a daily sodium intake of less than 2,300 mg sodium per day, and only 1,500 for many groups, including adults over 50, all children, all African-Americans, and anyone who has hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. This isn’t very much! Check store-bought foods for sodium and look for low-sodium soups and sauces. Try using other spices like curry, pepper, fresh herbs, or garlic to enhance flavor.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Keep kids away from soda and sugary fruit “drinks.” Kids can drink fruit juice, but look for 100% fruit juices without added sugars, and encourage kids to eat whole fruits they like for the added benefits of fiber. Adults should avoid heavily sweetened coffee drinks, which are full of sugar and calories.
  • Get more physical activity. Most Americans don’t get enough physical activity. Daily exercise is important to overall health. Kids, especially, should have limited “screen time,” and be encouraged to play outdoors rather than watching TV or using the computer.

For more guidance, USDA offers the ChooseMyPlate.gov website. You can create a personalized plan generated for your individual needs, or use resources such as the food tracker, food planner, sample menus, recipes, and a foodapedia that gives quick access to food information, food groups, calories, and food comparisons.

MyPlate can be a helpful basic guideline for kids and adults to know how much to eat from each food group, but it’s important to also follow the additional guidelines above for healthy eating.  For more information on healthy eating and weight control, see our articles Eating Habits that Improve Health and Lower Body Mass Index, Obesity in America: Are Your Part of the Problem, Ten Easy Tips to Get Your Family Eating Healthy, and The Cost of Obesity: A Higher Price For Women

References

ChooseMyPlate.gov.  Retrieved June 7, 2011, from United States Department of Agriculture.  http://www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html