Government’s new nutrition guide gets mixed reviews

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It’s helpful. It’s unnecessary.

GROUP KNOWLEDGE

Here’s a closer look at what’s included in the USDA’s food groups included in the new MyPlate healthy eating icon — fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy.

Fruits: Any fruit or 100 percent fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen or dried and may be whole, cut-up or pureed.

Vegetables: Any vegetable or 100 percent vegetable juice counts. Veggies may be raw or cooked; fresh, frozen, canned or dried/dehydrated.

Protein: Lean cuts of beef and pork, chicken, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, peas and tofu. Protein helps build, maintain and replace vital tissues.

Grains: Bread, cereal, rice, tortillas, pasta. Whole-grain products, including whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice, have more fiber and are healthier choices.

Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheese, fortified soy milk. Low-fat or nonfat dairy is preferable.

It’s stupid. It’s brilliant.

When it comes to the new MyPlate healthy eating guide introduced earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are as many opinions as colors.

The plate, a rainbow-bright symbol meant to make healthy eating recommendations easier to understand, shows the groups of foods Americans should be eating — in the right proportions for optimal health — on a white plate.

MyPlate replaces the food pyramid, the standard in governmental nutritional advice since 1993.

A glance at the new guide shows that half your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. Eating more fruits and vegetables will help reduce calories and increase vitamins and minerals. The rest of your plate should be a combination of mostly whole grains and a smaller amount of lean protein with a side of dairy. The divided plate also discourages super-sized portions, which can lead to weight gain.

MyPlate’s advice: “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”

Reaction to the $2 million spent on the new graphic and its promotion?

Depends on whom you ask.

“I think it’s brilliant,” said Deanna Fredericks, a Kansas City, Mo., graphic designer. “It’s clean, attractive and easy to understand. And using a plate just makes sense. Overall? Good job.”

Mitzi Dulan, a registered dietitian and co-author of “The All-Pro Diet” with former Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez, gives it a thumbs-up, too. In fact, she said she’s been using a similar plate with her clients for more than a decade.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “Visually speaking, people can kind of think of what they want their plate to look like, so I think it will help people. And it’s what we’ll be teaching our kids, so it’s a better educational tool. Whenever you can educate people better they will learn better and eventually make smarter food choices.”

But John Schmidt, a Kansas City contractor, views the icon in a different light. He’s sick of “the nanny state” spending money to tell people how to eat.

“Does anybody out there not know what healthy foods are?” he said. “When I drink beer and eat barbecue, I do it because I love it, not because I think it’s health food. We don’t need this.

“Use the $2 million to help sick kids or the unemployed. Or give it to the people in Joplin who lost their homes. To spend money on something like this at this time is insanity.”

Stella Framington, a sales representative from Olathe, Kan., agreed.

“This might just be the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a historic recession, there are no jobs, the government’s credit rating is just about to go in the toilet, and we’re spending $2 million designing a new plate to replace a pyramid that nobody cared about anyway? Has Washington completely lost its mind?”

Dulan doesn’t think so.

“When we’re paying an estimated $146 billion every year in nutrition-related health care costs, it is in all of our best interests to try to help others make smart food choices and help them improve their diet,” she said. “Two million is (a bargain) if we can improve the nutrition of millions of Americans.”

So what was so wrong with the food pyramid?

“It was too confusing, and it just wasn’t a good visualization for people,” Dulan said.

It also gave poor nutritional advice, she said.

“The bottom of the pyramid contained way too many starches for the average person,” she said. “It recommended 6 to 11 servings from the breads, cereal, rice and pasta group. That’s too many carbs. It also didn’t specify (healthier) whole grains, which MyPlate does.

“And people didn’t know what a serving size was. They couldn’t correlate it to their plates. You know, ‘What does this really mean to me?’ So they were eating way too much. Now, with MyPlate, they can not only see what their goal is, they can visualize it.”

The MyPlate website — choosemyplate.gov — offers more-specific nutritional information, including recommendations on portion size, and healthy eating guidelines for various sexes and ages. It also lists what it calls “key consumer messages” written in large red type: “Make at least half your grains whole grains,” and “Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk.”

The website says consumers should compare sodium in foods such as soup, bread and frozen meals, and choose foods with lower numbers. It also recommends drinking water instead of sugary drinks.

Stephanie Dumler, executive chef at the Westside Local restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., wasn’t blown away by the new icon but said it was a good way to give out guidelines without being confrontational.

“You’re giving a lot more leeway to consumers as to what type of foods they should be putting on their plate,” she said. “You’re just given more options as an eater.”

While she liked the increased focus on whole grains, in the end, she said, healthy eating still boils down to common sense.

“You shouldn’t deny yourself good food,” Dumler said. “Just cut your portions back.”

The new MyPlate guide is a good first start to developing such healthy habits, said Dulan, the dietitian.

“While you can’t control what people do, you do have to educate them and make the advice as easy to understand as possible,” she said. “And many people do want to be told what to eat. They want a guide. They want you to take the work out of it and make it as simple as possible for them. And that’s what they’ve done.”