Federal officials are replacing the food pyramid with a full plate — and while experts say that the new approach is an imperfect solution, it's a vast improvement on the much-maligned My Pyramid.
At a news conference Thursday morning, First Lady Michelle Obama, together with Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, unveiled the new icon, called My Plate. The plate features four labeled sections: two larger, equally sized sections representing vegetables and grains, and two smaller sections for fruit and protein. Perched on the right side is a smaller circle for dairy — perhaps for a cup of yogurt or low-fat milk — and to the left sits a fork, completing the full dinner-plate effect.
"When it comes to eating, what's more useful than a plate, what's more simple than a plate?" Obama said. She called the new design "a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods we’re eating."
My Pyramid, introduced in 2005, was a chore for consumers to understand, experts said. Its colored stripes represented different food groups — grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, milk, and meats and beans — but consumers have to go online to figure that out. The daily amounts of food were given in ounces, and as Obama pointed out in her speech, parents "don't have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken."
It almost made the old food pyramid from 1992, which appeared to favor grains disproportionately and measured units with the ambiguous "serving," look appealing by comparison. At least the old pyramid showed pictures of what kinds of foods were in each group, dieticians said.
"For me, My Pyramid was too abstract," said Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian in Burbank and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. "It was confusing. So I’d say ‘Here’s My Pyramid,’ and show [my clients] the slides — but then I’d show them the old food guide pyramid’s graphics to show what it really meant."
The new plate is drawing praise from health professionals. Dr. Adrienne Youdim, medical director of the Cedars-Sinai Center for Weight Loss in Los Angeles, called the new plate "a positive change when it comes to diet and nutrition."
"The concept is not new — it's been used quite widely in the clinical sphere," Youdim said. "Our clinical dietitians often use [the plate model] to educate patients on nutrient intake and portion sizes."
But while the food plate is a huge improvement on the pyramid, said Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at Harvard University, it's far from ideal. Among his concerns: the plate alone does not tell people which foods are good and bad to eat.
"To make informed choices, people will need additional information," Willett said. "It really makes a difference whether the grains you eat are whole grains or refined grains. It makes a huge difference what kind of proteins are being consumed — to be healthy, we need to be replacing the meat with a mix of chicken, nuts and legumes."
The smaller dairy circle, he added, could be misleading.
"It implies there should be a glass of milk or some dairy at every meal and there's no evidence to show that that's beneficial," he said.
As Obama noted in her speech, one thing it did not include was exercise — an aspect of healthy living she continues to promote with her "Let's Move" campaign to reduce childhood obesity. That s something the old pyramid had over the new plate because it managed to include exercise by depicting a stylized stick figure climbing a staircase up the pyramid's edge.
Other countries have struggled to illustrate the importance of exercise. France also uses the stairs; Grenada paints incongruous little red silhouettes of people playing sports around its food graphic. China makes someone run past its five-tiered pagoda of food.
But perhaps the most clever one is Japan’s food graphic, according to James Painter, chair of the school of family and consumer sciences at Eastern Illinois University. Rather than a pyramid, Japan’s features a food top, filled with the different food groups, with a little person running along the top’s surface. If that person stops running, the top stops spinning and falls.
"They incorporate exercise better than any of the other diagrams," said Painter, who has studied 65 government nutrition icons from around the world.
For more history of the food pyramid and descriptions of some of the wackier icons around the world, check out our preview story: USDA to reshape how we see dietary nutrition.
Follow me on Twitter @LAT_aminakhan.