Many of you by now have seen the new USDA ChooseMyPlate recommendations, where they eschew the near ubiquitous “Food Pyramid” for something much more nebulous – 4 roughly sized areas on a plate of indeterminate size, complete with another area off to the side to represent dairy. On the plate are the usual suspects – Vegetables, Fruit, Grains, and Protein (not meat, because we have to be sensitive to the people that choose not to eat meat. To do otherwise would be at the very least rude, and we can’t ignore protein completely. So we instead name that section after not the type(s) of food you eat (meat, nuts, dairy, tortured-vegetable-protein byproduct), but instead the macronutrient that the foods replace. Great. Should we do that with the other stuff? Nah, because then we would have the following: Protein, carbohydrate, carbohydrate, carbohydrate, and that would just look funny and a little sad.
It is also worth mentioning that (using my trusty micrometer) that the vegetables and grains sections are the same size, while the protein and fruits section are sized the same (but smaller than the areas for veggies and grains).
So there was a little reason for cautious optimism. No longer was the grain category this massive foundation at the bottom of the types of foods we should eat, but instead much more reasonably balanced. It was not perfect (I still feel grains should be the smallest part of your diet and would ultimately like to see them stricken from the dinner table), but it was a step in the right direction.
But then, as I thought about it more, it didn’t address the macronutrient issue, which is really much more important than that of food ‘groups’. What was more, the text below the shiny little my plate graphic starts talking the same ol’ lines that got us to the situation we’re in now.
- Eat less food
- Half of your plate should be filled with vegetables AND fruits
- Half of your grains should be whole grains
- Use low or no fat dairy products
And they follow that with some ‘gooder’ information:
- eat less sodium in your prepared foods (would have been better if it was “don’t eat prepared foods”…)
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
It’s a sin! Burn it!
The most inexcusable issue on the entire site is the “empty calories” section. Thankfully it is not widely available, due to the lackluster user interface of the site, but it only takes two clicks to get there. Are you ready for this? Solid fats is the first thing listed in the “empty calories” section. In the CICO (calories in/calories out) world, it makes sense to place ‘solid fats’ in this category – they are high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals. However, they are fantastic for satiety, taste good (you’re an animal, right? You crave things for a reason…), and your body is actually incredibly efficient at processing them. Instead of being placed in the empty calories section, they should have been placed in the oils section (which also conveniently demonizes them and excludes them because they are ‘saturated’ fats, and therefore probably the spawn of the devil).
But to place solid fats ABOVE added sugars is CRIMINAL. Consumption of added sugars has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, to the tune of dozens of pounds of extra sugar added to products yearly. This may SINGLEHANDEDLY be responsible for the increase in obesity in the US over the last (coincidentally?) 30-50 years. Of course, the sedentary nature of the average American’s life doesn’t help at all, but overall increase in sugars (while at the same time having an overall decrease in those evil ‘solid fats’ and an increase in liquid vegetable oils) is probably far more likely. (If you ask any fitness buff, the key to getting super fit is not exercise alone, but a combination of exercise and diet. As an example, look at mc’s critique and overview of P90X on begin2dig.
Back to the ChooseMyPlate…
From there, you can drill down to find out examples of the food groups, tips, tools, and some information for specific audiences, including the Weight Loss audience. This means that “eat less food” was not a recommendation for people that are overweight or trying to lose weight, but for everyone. The weight loss audience section simply follows the CICO balance with no regard to how different foods (macronutrients, really) are processed by the body, nor does it really try to explain how the body fueling system works with those macronutrients, which is unfortunate and a huge missed opportunity (however much it contrasts with the USDA recommendation for food intake, there should be SOME attempt to educate people on how the foods we eat affect insulin production and how our body uses insulin. This is just one of many different topics it fails to have any valuable or real information on. I’m sure someone could have made a fantastic infographic based off of the wikipedia article).
The weight loss section goes on to talk about a couple of different (but very important) pieces of the puzzle WAYYYYY down at the bottom, perhaps trying to drive home their importance by obscuring the information at the bottom of a page very few people will actually read.
- Learn what to eat from each group.
- Choose “nutrient dense” foods from each group (author’s note: sayonara, grains!)
- Get moving
I wholeheartedly agree with these statements, and feel they should have a much more prominent placement on the site (say on the front page, right underneath the pretty pictures). And that’s just the beginning of the problems. The information does not go deep enough (and there are people out there that would be interested, if the information was available and easily presentable) which makes the site seem shallow and targeted at an audience with a five second attention span (which it may be, but if those are the people that are having problems, you need to get better information to them as quickly as possible).
While it does take some steps to mitigate the damage it has done, the USDA does not go far enough. What we need is a sea change style overhaul of the system. We’ve tried ignoring research and moving towards a more vegetarian diet – people aren’t happy with it and turn to processed foods, which are typically high in sodium, sugars and carbohydrates (more sugars). We have enough information to move past the fallacy that is the lipid hypothesis and to really start looking at ways to improving our diet, our health, and our well-being.
Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) states in an interview “…There is a link between saturated fat and cholesterol in the blood. There is a link between cholesterol in the blood and heart disease. But the proof that saturated fat leads to heart disease in a causal way is very tenuous. In one review of the literature I read, only two studies suggested that, and a great many more failed to find that link. Yet the public is still operating on this basis that we shouldn’t be eating cholesterol….”
However thin the proof, here we are, in 2011, with a new set of guidelines (not regulations… yet) that adhere to the same old rules of the past that have been so inadequate in curbing the epidemic of obesity (and indeed may be feeding it).
In Part 2, I’ll lay out what my infographic means, what kinds of foods I eat, and how that’s improved my life. See you soon!