Presto Change-o: Forget The Pyramid, Embrace The Plate
When reminiscing about elementary school days, we picture the classroom: wooden desks and chairs, the chalkboard with the letters of the alphabet displayed across the top, and the Food Guide Pyramid hanging on the wall. For years, with its colored stripes and abstract percentages, this pyramid served as a nutritional guide for Americans. The different colors represented the different food groups, and the width of each color represented the recommended daily allowance of each food group. But making the jump from that garbled chart to “What should I actually eat for lunch?” was confusing for both children and adults alike. So last year, dietitians, along with the government and schools, set out to teach healthy eating an easier way—one plate at a time.
In the summer of 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), based on recommendations from the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, replaced the old pyramid with a new, simpler visual nutrition tool: MyPlate— based on the actual place setting you use to eat your meals. “The goal of MyPlate is to assist Americans in making healthier food choices for meals by using a place setting to demonstrate a meal which contains five food groups,” says Marie Barone, R.D., C.D.E., with UC Davis Health System. “The graphic explains the food groups, variety and portion control concepts.” While the visual is a reminder to eat healthy at every meal, more complete guidelines on what to consume can be found at cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.
“The MyPlate format helps you plan your meal by visualizing how much space each food should occupy on a plate,” says Tracy Toms, M.S., R.D., with Mercy San Juan Medical Center. “This can help you eat a balanced meal. It can also prevent you from eating too much of any food group.” At the Web site choosemyplate.gov you can get additional information on balancing calories to manage weight, foods and food components to reduce, and foods and nutrients to increase. For example, the weight-management section encourages consumers to eat fewer calories and increase physical activity. As far as what everyone should reduce in their diets, the USDA recommends sodium, saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, cholesterol, solid fats and added sugars. In the “what to increase section,” the site lists fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low- or fat-free milk.
In order to assist families and schools in teaching the younger generation—and those of us who need to shift the way we currently think of meals—choosemyplate.org offers materials for the classroom and visual messages that are easy to understand for any age group. However, dietitians believe that teaching these healthy habits should not be left to the schools. Tamalisa Carlson, M.P.H., R.D., a clinical dietitian and health educator with Marshall Medical Center, says that basic nutrition should be modeled from a child’s first bite of solid food. “Although we should avoid the urge to label foods as good or bad, we can always emphasize the concept of balance in supporting our overall health,” she says.
Teaching a well-balanced diet is something parents can do with children in a fun way. “Teachable moments may be found when planning and preparing meals, grocery shopping and during meal times,” says Glee Van Loon, R.D., C.D.E., with UC Davis Health System. In fact, parents can strike up a conversation when they see the MyPlate icon on food products at the supermarket.
Barone does advise that MyPlate offers intended guidelines for those ages two and above who want to eat healthy, including those at risk for chronic conditions. However, special diets are not taken into consideration. In addition, Carlson warns that the MyPlate design does not give specific guidelines as to what types of dairy and protein foods to consume. So, if you have the need for a special diet or want more specifics on what to consume, speak with a registered dietitian to learn about your individual nutrition needs.
Ready to prepare your own plate for a meal? Grab one that measures nine inches across. Then draw an imaginary line through the center and divide one of the halves into quarters. One half of the plate is for non-starchy vegetables. As another measurement, envision a plate stacked with vegetables about the size of your closed fist. Want seconds? No problem on these healthy heroes, such as broccoli, green beans, carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, cauliflower, spinach, peppers and salad greens. Now onto the quarters. One fourth of the plate—half of a closed fist—is a bread, starch or grain (think rice, crackers, cooked grains, cereal, tortillas, bread and starchy vegetables like potatoes or winter squash). Another fourth—about the size of the palm of your hand—is lean protein. Examples include beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, tofu and eggs. Toms notes that for the MyPlate concept, beans are counted as a starch, not a protein. Next, add in a small piece of fresh fruit, about the size of a tennis ball. You can also substitute half a cup of frozen, cooked or canned fruit, a small handful of dried fruit or half a cup of 100-percent fruit juice. Finally, drink a cup of low- or fat-free milk, or eat six ounces of no-sugar-added yogurt. You can also substitute dairy with another serving of fruit or a small dinner roll. •
Four Tips To Better Eating Habits
- Shop at Farmers’ Markets. “These markets can help increase the variety of fruits and vegetables consumed,” Barone says.
- Learn to Read Food Nutrition Labels. Having all of the facts in front of you will help you compare products and increase awareness of what you’re consuming.
- Make One Change at a Time. You don’t have to change all of your eating habits at once. The small changes will make a big difference over time. “For example, start by adding one additional fruit or vegetable per day, or using whole-grain bread instead of white bread for sandwiches,” Van Loon says.
- Eat More Plant-Based Meals. Consider introducing one meatless meal a day.