Nutrition Guidelines—Are They Complete?

In 2005, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) replaced the well-known Food Guide Pyramid with MyPyramid to help better convey the message of healthful eating to the American public.  Needless to say, it failed to easily provide examples of a balanced diet and was difficult to use.  In 2010, MyPyramid was replaced with MyPlate, a picture of a plate, divided into nutritional segments (fruits, grains, proteins, vegetables, dairy) with the largest portion on the plate for fruits and vegetables.

This latest iteration has positive improvements over past versions yet is deficient in certain areas.  On the “good” side, MyPlate emphasizes more of a plant-based diet, including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and whole grains.  It also urges Americans to eat fish at least twice a week due to its heart-healthy benefits, and does not categorize all proteins as equally healthy.  On the “bad” side, MyPlate does not emphasize the importance of eating whole, unprocessed, non-refined grains, limiting red meat in favor of leaner meats, warning against eating processed meats like hot dogs and lunch meats, and the appropriate role of dairy in a balanced diet.  It also does not mention “healthy” fats such as those found in nuts and avocadoes, and totally ignores some of the biggest problems of the American diet: sweets, salty processed snacks, sugary drinks, and refined grains.  Some might consider that since MyPlate is produced by a governmental agency, the emphasis on certain food groups (dairy, red meat, etc.) could be due to strong lobbying efforts from those industries rather than evidence-based findings of their health benefits.

In September 2011, nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health made improvements to MyPlate and created The Healthy Eating Pyramid and The Healthy Eating Plate.  (see both guides at The purpose was to create easy-to-use guides, based on scientific evidence, for Americans to use in shopping, serving, and eating healthful meals.  The basis for The Healthy Eating Pyramid is exercise and weight control with the simple mantra of “do more than you eat.”   Key components in the pyramid (from bottom to top) include: Level 2–whole grains, healthy fats and oils, fruits and vegetables, Level 3-nuts, seeds, beans, and tofu, fish, poultry and eggs, Level 4-dairy and calcium/Vitamin D supplements, Level 5-red meats, sugars, refined grains, salt, potatoes (use sparingly).  Also suggested is drinking alcohol in moderation, taking a daily multi-vitamin, and examples of healthy oils and whole grains.  The only off-limits foods are those containing trans-fats made from partially hydrogenated oils.

The Healthy Eating Plate serves as a guide for Americans to focus on food quality.  Half of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables comprised of a wide-variety of colors.  One-fourth of the plate should be filled with whole grains, with the remaining one-fourth filled with a healthy protein.  The Healthy Eating Plate also encourages eating healthy fats, drinking water, coffee, or tea, and staying active.  The two guides serve to complement each other: the pyramid as the grocery list and the plate as the guide to serving a balanced, healthful meal.

Sources: “The Nutrition Source-Food Pyramids and Plates: What Should You Really Eat?” Harvard School of Public Health, (downloaded March 16, 2012)