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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.

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A Plate From the USDA With a Tastier Way to See More Nutritious Eating

Posted: 06/06/11 12:00 PM ET

With First Lady Michelle Obama headlining a media event, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week officially and finally scrapped its food pyramid -- an explanation for nutrition that could be as elusive to decipher as the riddle of the Sphinx. Uncle Sam, instead, replaced the old good eating diagram with a sight that's familiar at every meal: a plate.

The new image is organized in the same fashion as the actual plates recommended by a host of successful dieters and nutrition experts: half of it is heaped with vegetables and fruit and the rest of the area is divided for grains and protein.

More specifically, the USDA version gives the largest share of the plate to vegetables, with similar space occupied by grains. Fruit and protein round it out in equal portions. Off to the side is dairy, represented by a circle that might be a cup of milk or yogurt. Gone is any reference to fats, alcohol, oils or sweets.

So say 'so long' to a graphic that had gotten so obtuse that scholars wrote about it in journals on visual communication and welcome a new picture so simple and elegant that even children who haven't yet mastered reading can understand it easily. Because this imagery primarily provides a public health teaching tool, scrapping the confusing and oft-debated food pyramid was a smart move. The first version of the pyramid put too much emphasis on grains as the basis of the diet. The redesigned version -- with a man running up the side of it and bands of color -- didn't seem to emphasize much of anything and was just as hard to interpret and understand.

So daunting had the old model become that a nonprofit physicians' organization sued the USDA in January, arguing that the pyramid benefited agribusiness but did not serve its purpose of helping the public to understand nutrition, thus reducing obesity and illness.

While the current model already has started to attract its share of criticism -- for example, that it illustrates the illogic of the U.S. government subsidizing certain less-healthy foods even as it promotes consumption of better alternatives -- dieticians long have used the mental picture of a plate to help teach patients about meal planning. The easy visual -- fill up half the plate with vegetables and fruit, and balance the rest between grains and protein -- can be used for virtually any meal whether eaten at home, in a cafeteria or at a restaurant.

The USDA also offers its plate with a few common-sense bites of wisdom. Under balancing calories, it instructs the public to enjoy food, but also to eat less and avoid oversized portions. Under the heading "foods to increase," it repeats the recommendation to make half of the plate fruits and vegetables. In addition, the agency serves up the very sensible advice of choosing whole grains for a sizable portion of your intake. (For an explanation of whole grains, see my previous post. Hint: if the first ingredient is "enriched," it's not whole grain.) The expert advice is to switch to fat-free or low-fat milk.

Lastly, this model recommends which foods to reduce, advising Americans to choose lower sodium foods and water over sugary drinks. Cutting out the 150 or so calories found in a typical can of soda can add up to pounds of weight loss over time; that really matters, of course, for children and teens.

Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

A few things to keep in mind when using this plate model: The USDA fits into its fruit group 100 percent fruit juice, whole fruit and canned fruit. But you must dig deeper into the website to read the fine print that urges that canned fruits be packed in juice -- not syrup. Likewise, the agency buries the advice that whole fruit offers a better choice over juice. Commercial -- and even some homemade -- juices don't include all of the fiber that comes from the skins and pulp of the juice. A 2008 study found that in women, increasing intake of whole fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower risk of diabetes, while increasing fruit juice intake was associated with a slightly higher risk. And consumers certainly should never confuse fruit juice with a "fruit drink," which dresses itself up as juice but is mostly sugar water.

Drawing the Lines

For experts who examine the new model there can be another quibble -- that some of the divisions built into the plate model may be unnecessary.

Protein has its own group. Consider, though, that protein can be derived not just from meat and fish but also from whole grains, beans and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and potatoes. Further, when choosing meat as a protein source, consumers should be critical. Lean chicken and fish are lower in fat and calories than beef; salmon has the added benefit of omega-3 fatty acids.

Similarly, dairy gets its own break out in the plate plan -- but if it's calcium you're after, you don't have to rely on milk, cheese or yogurt. Spinach, kale, collard greens and turnip greens provide good doses of calcium, as does tofu. Give credit, however, to the USDA for pointing out that fat-free and low-fat choices are a good idea and noting that foods, such as butter and cream cheese, that are made from milk but contain little or no calcium are excluded from the dairy group. To create a guide based on specific nutrients, however, could fast get as complicated as the old pyramid.

For nutrition's sake, there's another key element to consider: the size of your plate. Scale matters. If you're using a massive platter and eating it clean, dividing up the portions properly will only offer so much help for your health. To reduce the size of your waist, reduce the size of your plate, shunning the foot-wide gourmand specials that have become commonplace.

Get Moving

As the presence of Mrs. Obama at the unveiling of the nutrition guidelines also should remind, for young folks -- for all of us, actually -- intake is only part of a whole picture about healthy diets. Don't forget the word that physicians always use and that follows diet - exercise. The First Lady's program to combat childhood obesity gets it right for kids, but also for adults, too: keep moving and stay active.

If you're flummoxed at any time, though, about healthy eating, the new plate tool should be much more helpful and user-friendly for dieticians and consumers alike. Should this new counsel from the USDA's new nutritional diagram inspire you to reconsider your own plate, take it one step at a time. Make small, incremental changes.

Loading up half of an appropriately sized plate with vegetables and fruits -- which are plentiful and delicious in the summer months -- is an easy and delicious place to start. Better still, consume that plate of food while gathered with the whole family, a practice that has its own medical benefits.