by Marion Nestle
Jun 5 2011

San Francisco Chronicle column: food plate, of course

My monthly (first Sunday) San Francisco Chronicle Food Matters column is on guess what?  This will be the last post on the new food icon for a while at least, I promise.

Food plate icon improvement of pyramid









Q: What’s the big deal over the government’s new food icon? A plate? That seems really boring.

A: The Department of Agriculture’s plate may look banal, but it is a key part of first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign and I see it as a big step forward. Unlike the 2005 MyPyramid, this one is mostly about food, is easy to understand, and does not require use of a computer.

The plate does a better job of reflecting current thinking about healthy diets than previous guides. Its four sectors are unequal. Vegetables get the most space, and dairy – a discretionary choice – is off to the side.

You are to pile half your plate with fruit and vegetables, and a quarter with grains (half of them whole grains). All these come from plants.

I’m less happy about the sector marked “protein.” Protein is not a food. It is a nutrient.

USDA must think everyone knows that “protein” means beans, poultry and fish, as well as meat. But grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are also important protein sources. The meat industry wants you to equate protein with meat. It should be happy with this guide.

What I like best are the messages that come with the plate. My favorite? “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”

At last! Enjoyment is part of dietary advice. High marks to USDA for this one.

Other messages are designed to help you eat less while eating better. Smaller portions keep calories under control. Making half your plate fruits and vegetables is a profound switch from the six to 11 calorie-rich grain servings you were supposed to eat daily under the old MyPyramid.

For people who drink milk (really, you don’t have to), switching to low-fat is an effective way to save on calories, and whole grains are better for health than refined, rapidly absorbable starches that behave like sugars in the body.

So far, so good. But next come the politically charged “foods to reduce.” Here, the USDA is leaning in the right direction, but still pulling punches. USDA tells you to reduce sodium from soup, bread and frozen meals, but says nothing about salty snacks or other sodium-laden processed foods. This is a glaring omission.

And the final principle – “drink water instead of sugary drinks” – puts naturally sweet fruit juices (fine in small amounts) in the same category as sugar-added juice drinks, sports drinks and sodas, which ought to be reserved for occasional treats.

Let’s give USDA credit for going as far as it could without directly confronting the processed-food and soft-drink industries.

Optimist that I am, I think the icon has plenty for everyone to work with. It emphasizes the positives – fruits, vegetables, whole grains – and leaves lots of room for enjoyment. You can pile whatever foods you like on that plate as long as they fit within their assigned sectors.

Best of all, you do not have to count numbers of servings. If you want to control the size of your servings, just use a smaller plate.

Consider the alternatives. From 1958 until 1979, the USDA’s uncontroversial Four Food Groups advised eating two or three servings a day from dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals – half the plate from animal-source foods.

In 1979, in an effort to help reduce dietary risks for chronic diseases, USDA stacked the groups with plant foods above animal foods, eliciting a furor that led USDA nutritionists to begin a 12-year project to research a new food guide.

USDA released a food guide Pyramid in 1991, withdrew it under protest from meat producers, and re-released it a year later. Meat and dairy producers did not like being at the “eat less” top of the Pyramid. Nutritionists thought it promoted too many servings of high-calorie grains.

In 2005, the USDA replaced that Pyramid with the unobjectionable, food-free MyPyramid. This was impossible to teach (you had to know what each color stood for), eliminated any sense that it is better to eat some foods than others, and required a computer to personalize your own diet.

USDA officials say they spent about $2 million to research and test the new plate logo, create its website, and publicize it. This is a lot or a little depending on your perspective, but a plate is not exactly a new concept. The American Diabetes Association, American Institute for Cancer Research and Canadian government have all used similar plant-focused plates for years. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has one with a similar design but 100 percent vegetarian.

We can argue over nutritional details, but I think USDA’s plate-plus-messages works better than anything it has done before. The plate works for health and for disease prevention. It took courage to make half of it fruit and vegetables. That’s real progress.

Now the challenge is to Congress: How about fixing agricultural policies so they support these recommendations?




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  • Fern Gale Estrow, MS, RD, CDN

    This is a step in the right direction and addressing policy is vital. Time to identify opportunities for congress farm bill, budget and appropriations (USDA spent 2 million developing now how much will be spent on marketing?) Also what how might state and local agencies address both policy and program that support? What funds will be allocated to update current curriculum’s, books etc?

  • MyPlate is a vast improvement over the food pyramid of yesterday. Two concerns deserve attention:

    1. Not everyone needs to “eat less”. Everyone does need to eat better. Metabolic obesity is a huge public health concern regardless of someone’s weight.

    MyPlate addresses the “eat better” part of the equation. Sadly there is no language that address satisfaction or eating enough. This tool and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines effectively ignore hunger and satiety. Eating enough without excess is the goal.

    2. MyPlate and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are not prescriptive. These are tools to help people consider how to approach food so that it works for them.

    There is no single right way to eat. It would be helpful if scientists, clinicians and writers remember to use language that is clear about the limitations of this public policy tool.

  • David Stewart


    Are you aware of any major objectives in the first lady’s agenda that includes agriculture policies? The plate is impressive, can they make the same dent on ag.policy?!

  • Carolyn White

    This icon is indeed a step in the right direction. However…
    Upon further digging, there is some seriously skewed information. For example, the interactive Daily Food Plan suggests eating a scant 1.5 cups of dark leafy greens per week (!) but 5 cups of starches (corn, potatoes) and 5.5 cups of “orange” vegetables.
    But even better than that: when you click on the recommendation of 2 cups of fruits per day, it takes you to three nuggets of wisdom. The three lines read, “Eat a variety of fruit. Choose fresh, frozen, canned, or dried fruit. Go easy on fruit juices.”
    Baby steps, I suppose…

  • Christina Ohlinger MS, RD, LD

    I agree that MyPlate is a huge improvement over MyPyramid. However, one glaring omission is that there is no recommendation about the size of the plate. Brian Wansink’s work pretty clearly shows the positive effect on portion control of using a smaller plate. For some, using a plate that is too big will still result in portions that are too large.

  • What about the BLATANT omission of HEALTHY fats? not to mention the fact that organic choices are not emphasized. Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory is a MUCH more precise and healthy guide!

  • Thibault Halpern

    I am curious to know what you, Dr. Nestle, and other food nutritionists think of the food icons used by other countries. For example, Canada uses a rainbow. See:
    I don’t know what other countries use and I would love to see a comparison between the various food guide icons and see how that compares to what the U.S. currently has.

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  • Marion

    @Thibault Halpern and others who have asked about international food guides.

    The USDA has a collection on one of its hard-to-find websites.

    The article from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association used to be posted, but now you have to pay for it. Try a library. It has a nice collection of photographs in color.

  • Roxanne Rieske

    Lisa: Seriously? Organic? Anti-inflammatory? The MyPlate is a government tool designed to cross all economic and social scales. People living on low or restricted incomes cannot hope to afford organics. It has to make sense and appeal to a very wide audience. Specifying organics or emphasizing speciality diets is elitist and misses the mark by a mile.

  • Lasciel

    Roxanne: seriously? People living on low or restricted incomes cannot hope to afford fruit and vegetables at all in many cases. Whole grains are recommended as well, (brown rice & wheat bread) both of which stores usually charge more for. Does that seem a touch elitist and unrealistic to you?

    Income doesn’t always dictate the availability of certain kinds of food either. Where I live, organic is cheaper because you can get it at the Farmer’s Market for cheaper and in greater amounts than non-organic at the store. While it may not be a reasonable expectation, there is nothing “elitist” in taking into account special dietary requirements someone may have. Do you think most teachers are just too familiar already with the dietary needs of someone with diabetes, wheat allergies, or Crohn’s disease?

    Not to mention the icon is hardly any different than the pie chart my health teacher used to illustrate what percentage of our daily meals should be carbs, proteins, fats, etc.

    Then there’s the problem of the “enjoy your food, but eat less” and I’m not really sure the point of that. Not everyone eats more than they should, and it seems a contradictory or at best useless message to those trying to gain weight or eat enough each day. That in itself rather negates the idea of crossing every income-level. My real problem with the slogan is that they give pretty much no advice on how to accomplish that. Not even “chew food slowly” or “drink water with every meal”. Nothing.

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  • Mia

    Dr. Nestle: what is your reasoning for recommending fruit juices in small amounts, but reserving sugar-added drinks for special occasions only? Try as I might, I can’t seem to find any decent justification for drinking fruit juice. It has nearly if not as much sugar as soda, and none of the fiber you get from eating whole fruits. I’m not saying you should never consume it, but I do feel that the distinction between juice and other sugary drinks is superficial, at best.

  • Dr. Nestle and all,

    I think the plate is a small step forward. The USDA still hasn’t realized a few very important things*:

    1) All grains and legumes contain anti-nutrients, namely phytic acid and lectins, that inhibit absorption of several critical nutrients (zinc, phosphorus, iron and magnesium, among others). They require soaking, sprouting, and/or fermentation to render digestible. I think that this calls into question the suitability of grains as a healthful human food. I also think that these facts are well-established scientifically (and culturally), so why doesn’t the USDA mention them?

    2) Animal fats are healthful; in fact, they’re critical for human health. The literature simply does not show that saturated fats actually cause heart disease, only that the two are correlated. Correlation is not causation, of course. Animal fats, in fact, contain vital fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K, and many other important nutrients like Coenzyme Q-10 that are crucial for human health. As cooking mediums, animal fats facilitate the absorption of other vitamins and minerals.

    *I can provide primary references for all statements I made, but I chose not to for the sake of space.

    Dr. Nestle, I agree with your assessment that protein is an inadequate piece of the pie because it’s only a nutrient. But I disagree with your exaltation of plant foods over animal foods. You write, “[the Food Plate] emphasizes the positives – fruits, vegetables, whole grains – and leaves lots of room for enjoyment.” It seems clear that you think animal foods are not positive, despite the fact that they’re highly nutritious.

    I’ve read enough of your work to know that you despise nutritionism. But it seems as though you’re promoting it, because — and please correct me if I’m wrong — perhaps something tells you that animal foods are inherently bad? I’d like to know.

    Thanks for your excellent journalism, as always.

    Colin Murphy
    Nutrition by Tradition

  • Heidi Exline

    I agree with Dr. Nestle that the section marked protein is misleading. I eat meat only about two times a week, but now that I’m living in India, everyone thinks I eat a lot of it. Even “non-veg” (their word for meat eaters) think I eat a lot of meat. Indians where I am reserve meat for evenings, and even then, usually less than once a week. And this generally goes for all income classes. It’s hard for me to give it up completely, but I think, as was mentioned already, protein can come from so many different sources, that meat need only be a rare one.

  • Sally

    This new plate reminds me of this:

    I found that sometime in the last 10 years or so. What I particularly like about Plate Power is that it addresses meals or dishes that may not typically be served on a plate — breakfast or soups, for instance. It also deals with starchy main dishes, like lasagna or casseroles.

    Ellie Krieger has also written about this:

    It’s a good idea, certainly not new, but will possibly reach a wider audience. Unlike the Prevention article, though, I’m afraid that they’re complicating something that is simple.

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  • Hi Marion –
    I would love to subscribe to your great blog, but the RSS feed button is not working. Thought you would want to know.

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