Why we need MyPolicy instead of MyPlate

Last week, I didn’t really have much to say about the replacement of USDA’s infamous food pyramid with the new plate image, which is why I was happy to cross-post Andy Bellatti’s take, which I obviously agree with. But this week a couple of media outlets asked for my opinion, and it should come as no surprise that I do actually have one, in particular in response to the many other reactions.

What I found most disappointing about the collective wisdom that was reported by the press last week is the idea that the new “easy to understand” plate image is “better” than the old obscure pyramid. Well that’s not saying much. But to me, it’s completely besides the point. Sure it’s easy to poke fun at how bad the pyramid image was (and I certainly had a ball doing so in my book) but just comparing images misses the larger issue: that the whole damn exercise of trying to educate the American public with a simple image is beyond pointless: it’s downright insulting.

But before I explain, allow me to get a few things about the new version off my chest. First of all, the website url tells us a lot: “ChooseMyPlate.gov“. The word choose or choice, where have I heard that before? Oh yes, it’s a favorite of the food industry, to remind us that really, it’s all up to individuals to choose to eat a healthy diet, and that companies provide a wide range of choices for us each to choose from. Never mind that for too many Americans, the choices in their neighborhood range from McDonald’s to Burger King. That the governments is using such a construction for dietary advice tells us that it doesn’t want to rub industry the wrong way by (god forbid) actually telling Americans how we should eat for optimum health.

Now much as been made about how brave it was for USDA to depict half of the plate with fruits and vegetables. Yes, that does represent a significant departure from the past and am willing to give some credit here. However, that victory to me is quickly overshadowed by two other scientifically-questionable recommendations: protein and dairy. As Marion Nestle pointed out, protein is not a food, it’s a nutrient, so the meat industry must be very happy to see it represented so prominently, as they have brainwashed the American public for decades into equating “meat” with “protein.” Most Americans eat way too much protein and certainly need no reminders.

But even more troubling is the placement of dairy as a circle image to the side, as if to say the government recommends that we all drink a glass of milk with every single meal, never mind those who are lactose intolerant or simply choose not to consume dairy. It seems USDA could not make up its mind on whether to recommend food or nutrients on the plate. They recommend “protein” but then why is “dairy” and not “calcium” recommended? Ah the politics of inconsistent messaging.

OK, now that my griping is out of the way, here’s why nothing that I just said even matters: Education alone will not improve dietary habits. The entire exercise of using an image (and other materials) to educate the American public to get us to eat right is doomed to failure, just as history has already shown for decades. And this is a concept not specific to eating behaviors but rather applies across the spectrum of public health issues. To paraphrase public health colleague, Harold Goldstein: There is not a single public health crisis in history that has been solved with a brochure.

Name your health behavior change: smoking, drinking, eating, wearing seat belts or bike helmets, having safe sex, etc, none of them can be accomplished with just education. Rather, policy change is needed to change the physical environment that people live in to help them make healthier choices. I could on and there are indeed many articles and books written on this subject, but if you don’t believe me, just ask any health educator how hard their job is; especially dietitians.

It’s going to take way more than a measly $2 million educational campaign to get Americans to fill up half their plate with fruits and vegetables. It’s going to take a massive overhaul of our agricultural policies, as is depicted in this handy pie chart from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and as writer Melanie Warner explains.

It’s also going to take addressing the billions of dollars in marketing the food industry spends each year to keep us from eating off of plates at all. (Perhaps a better image might have been a pizza box or a take-out carton?) It’s especially going to take massive political will to stop the food industry’s predatory marketing of junk food to children. Ironically, the federal government is currently asking for comments on proposed guidelines for food companies to follow to change how they market to kids. Industry is up in arms over it, despite the rules being completely voluntary. I could go on, but you get the idea.

So, I really don’t care if the new plate is easier or better than the old pyramid. Even if the plate was full of nothing but locally-grown, organic, fresh produce, that image would only serve as a painful reminder to too many Americans that eating that way on a regular basis is sadly out of reach. Only policy can change that.

16 Responses to “Why we need MyPolicy instead of MyPlate”

  1. I agree almost entirely with your next-to-last graf, but I’m commenting on something else. A couple of times, you assert that education alone won’t solve the problems, though I agree with that as well, a key point is that no one said it would!

    This “X alone solves nothing” trope is usually trotted out by the Center for Consumer Freedom and similar miscreants, when what we need is nuance and a willingness to attack problems on as many fronts as helpful. Education is unquestionably a helpful front, even while I’m sure that a lack of education of what’s healthful to eat is not the problem. (Apple: good. Donut: bad.)

    So it’s a small improvement, but I’ll take improvement from wherever it emanates.

    • Michele says:

      Actually education has a lot of different meanings and I don’t agree that it is an “unquestionably a helpful front”, at least not in this form. My point is that the entire MyPlate effort is a distraction from the harder politics of what we need to prioritize. I am not a fan of federal government nutrition “education” as it’s too wrought with politics to be trustworthy.

      Other forms of education, however, such as community-based cooking programs in conjunction with providing fresh, affordable produce in neighborhoods that lack it, I am very much in favor of. But MyPlate has no relevance in that context and is insulting.

      • Vapid and not much value, perhaps, but not insulting. THIS is insulting (lol, I’m sure you’ve seen Colbert’s take http://j.mp/iKAdk5)

        Seriously, tho Michele, I agree wholeheartedly that the vested interests make it a moshpit; just saw a local pbs doc here at the media ctr/P.A. and was amazed by how ‘the basics’ were an epiphany for some (e.g. portion distortion, mindless eating w/TV etc.) I think sometimes we’re “too close to it.” Clearly an ‘education nation’ we are not w/food foibles.

        Bottom line, I agree food policy needs to be at the forefront of change, hands down…with an exclamation point. (healthlit is the “and/also” part of the convo)

  2. [...] It’s Still No Contest (Melanie Warner)My Plate: New Illustration, Same Problems (Andy Bellatti)Why we need MyPolicy instead of MyPlate (Michele Simon)–What are your thoughts on the new MyPlate? Is it an improvement? A waste [...]

  3. Seth says:

    The insights from your book and tweets are often so good, which is why I’m having trouble understanding all the venom you’ve given to the new MyPlate. To summarize prominent nutritionists: MyPlate is better than MyPyramid; could still be improved. You don’t really seem to differ with this assessment, so the question becomes, Why spend the time attacking MyPlate when there are bigger fish to fry? Those who are now saying MyPlate will help no one also no doubt say that MyPyramid was useless too. So even if there’s no upside with this new nutrition guide, there’s little to no downside either, right? And ‘insulting’? It’s meant to be a top-line guide for people of all ages, not a comprehensive and detailed solution.

    And having read your book, I know you can put forward better arguments than the paragraph about choice/choose language. So what if industry loves this terminology; they have no exclusive claim to it. We make choices every day, about food and everything else, so using the new URL to invoke McDonald’s and Burger King is a little thin. These are not dirty terms, and I think nutrition advocates should talk more about choice as part of a winning message—e.g., better food labeling that gives us more informed choices, or more public drinking fountains to have the choice between free water and pricey sugary drinks.

    Finally, the other commenter says it well, that no one (at least who I know) is advocating education only to fix food. But this gets back to why I’m so puzzled about the MyPlate throw-down. I think a lot of people believe, as I do, that food in the U.S. needs fixing, but also that the solutions are going to come mostly in small, additive steps. MyPlate may not ultimately help anyone, but it’s a symbol and it replaces a worse one. On some level that’s a tiny win, a small step forward. So why scoff at it? Why not acknowledge it’s an improvement, suggest where it can be improved, and move on in search of the next win? Do we need clear policy solutions? Of course we do. But education primes the pump, and the two go hand in hand. So instead of laying the many food problems (marketing to kids, bogus subsidies) at the foot of MyPlate, let’s turn it around and say, Hey, geniuses, let’s bring the rest of your policies into line with this new nutrition guide you just created.

  4. Kathleen Eutsler says:

    No one said education was going to fix everything, true.

    This is no feat, though. 2 million dollars went into re-inventing the wheel, literally. This is something that should have been done 50 years ago and we should be embarrassed it took us this long to get past (some of) the food industry pressure.

    The first thought on my mind, what’s next?

    It’s as if the USDA has been “interventioned”. They have made a verbal agreement to go to rehab, but haven’t even finished their last drink.

    Subsidized genetically modified corn speaks louder than the new plate icon.

  5. Brian says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that this is a way oversimplification of how a healthy diet should be achieved. I wish they had a trash can next to the plate, and put processed foods into it with brand names like Nabisco, Mars, CocaCola, etc. Maybe then Americans could differentiate between healthy, and non healthy. Unfortunately, even if you think you are eating healthy foods, the way fruits and vegetables are grown, or how animals are raised have direct effects on our health as well. So yes, oversimplification. I also believe that there is too much emphasis on grains in the MyPlate. Like dairy, there are many who cannot eat them because of allergies, are a contributor to obesity in America (along with sugar, which, thankfully didn’t even get a mention), and there is much scientific evidence that they cause disease.

    What we really need to happen to help educate Americans is to get public policy and private interest out of the dietary guidelines business. Dietitians, doctors (although they have a vested interest in us being sick) and scientists should be ones telling us what is the most healthy. Anytime government or money is involved, lies will follow.

  6. [...] We love Michele Simon’s considered response to the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guidelines. We apologize for being a bit sound-bite-y here, and we encourage you to go read the full article. [...]

  7. [...] seems some thought I was a tad too harsh in my critique of the new USDA  MyPlate, the federal government’s latest attempt to teach Americans how to [...]

  8. [...] My only commentary on how it’s divided is — when did protein become a food group? Wonder if this could have anything to do from the meat lobbying industry. I won’t get into that discussion because Michele does a wonderful job of that on Appetite for Profit with Why we need more policy instead of My Plate. [...]

  9. Nikki Rose says:

    Thank you, Michele for another excellent report. I still don’t get it…the concept of seeking advice from strangers (government-funded brochure producers) about what to eat. If the US gov’t and their food industry pals were doing the public a favor by advising them what to eat, why are there more diet-related health problems today instead of less? Remember who is paying for this great advice!? Michele Simon is on the mark here, as always. In my humble opinion as a chef and culinary/organic agriculture seminar director for over 15 years — people should completely ignore MyPlate and find better ways to support sustainable organic farmers. The people working hard to provide us with safe and healthy food are doing us a favor, not the other way around.

  10. Janet Camp says:

    @Brian and Nikki Rose

    I don’t know where to begin with the misinformation the two of you have combined to put forth!

    1) You can be obese eating only organically grown food. Calories matter.
    2) Organic food is NOT more nutritious than conventionally grown food. It may have advantages for the environment, but that’s another issue. It may taste better–not so much since “big organic” has moved in. Also, organically grown food is NOT pesticide-free as is often thought. Some “organic” pesticides may actually be more harmful than their synthetic relatives.
    By the way, the sprouts that caused the e-coli outbreak in Germany recently were from an organic farm. I’m not anti-organic (at all), but we need to be factual here. Organic is not a panacea for what ails us. Many 90 year olds have never eaten anything organic and many organic devotees have died of cancer.
    3) There are much bigger problems than food additives. Such as fresh food not being available in many urban communities.
    4) It is not only inaccurate, but downright ignorant to claim that physicians have a “vested interest” in our being sick. We will always need doctors in spite of diet. While many illnesses are exacerbated by obesity (the main result of too many calories), diet has little to do with being born with Type I diabetes, for instance.
    5) It is certainly the government’s responsibility to safeguard public health. The problem is that they allow politics and industry groups to influence their efforts to do this. Hence we get “protein” to avoid offending the meat industry.
    6) There is NOT too much emphasis on grains in the “Plate”. Grains are perfectly nutritious, especially whole grains. Individuals may prefer not to for various reasons, but they should be included in standard nutritional recommendations–especially for vegetarians.

    That’s a start. If you are going to state things that deviate from standard scientific norms, you need to give sources–ones that are peer-reviewed and published in mainstream journals.

    As to the topic, I’m with Michelle. We need meaningful action, not industry pampering half-measures. The government should not have to fear industry reprisal for simply telling the truth. Baby steps are something, but not enough. We have a crisis and strong action is required.

  11. [...] Michele Simon rightly points out in her recent post, what’s really needed to affect change are policy changes. She writes, “It’s [...]

  12. Christine says:

    I’ve got to disagree with this posting, for some of the reasons others cite and at least one more. If the ask is “let’s improve our public policies,” we as advocates need to do more celebrating of the big AND the small policy solutions, and less knocking down of good-faith efforts. People already think government is inherently good for nothing, in the pockets of industry, etc. Why reinforce it? Honestly, this little educational tool may not have shaken up my world or anyone’s, but for this busy working mom it was a nice reminder in planning family menus. I didn’t think protein = meat, since it didn’t say that, but I sure did think “half of all food = fruit and vegetables.”

    The reason the other side keeps winning is because a lot of the voters who would support taking more power away from big industries, making our communities healthier through policy change, and making kids priority one–too many of those people stay home on election day. They already are disheartened or convinced government has nothing to do with them. If this little image feels tangible or useful to a few of them, let’s not disparage it. Let’s not start invoking backroom deals and corrupt intentions for every little thing, or soon even more people will throw up their hands and check out. Let’s point out, yes, this is one useful thing–and here are some more solutions that could make life even better.

  13. Christine,

    I must say I don’t see the benefit in celebrating very simple things. I think one can certainly acknowledge correct actions while simultaneously pointing out flaws. Why must critical analysis be dismissed as “cynicism”? Why not celebrate it? Celebrating simple things can mean that I am supposed to “be happy” that Coca cola and Pepsi have scholarship programs, that Kraft lowers sodium in their nutritionally-void snacks by ten milligrams, or that Big Food companies are partnering with the American Dietetic Association.

    The labeling of “eternal discontents” takes away from the issue at hand — My Plate is a lame duck illustration as long as subsidies remain the same. If anything, supporters of My Plate should be very angry that the illustration they find so useful and helpful is not being backed by appropriate agricultural policies.

    And, I can’t help but ask — why is the fact that one is a busy mother relevant in this situation? Do the opinions of women who are not mothers not count? The opinions of mothers who aren’t too busy? I am not singling you out, Christine, it’s just that the comment about being a busy brings to mind a lot of times in which I have seen “as a busy mom…” brought up in regards to legitimizing feeding kids junk (ie: “as a busy mom, I think chocolate milk is wonderful”, “as a busy mom, I see nothing wrong with Lucky Charms”, etc). I think it strikes a nerve with me because Big Food loves to defend the most heinous of products with the excuse that “busy moms” will love it, as if they are all mindless drones who will support any food product.

    • Christine says:

      Andy, all of your examples involve industry, not government. I in no way suggest that profit motives shouldn’t be called out in the marketplace, because they should. We absolutely need to call out industry when its PR stunts are not backed by real action. However, if the point of the post, as I understand it, is to create momentum for bigger policy change, we need to start NOT from a place of saying government doesn’t work. Years of good data on effective messaging about public policies shows what work in shaping public opinion about the need for change is starting from a place of optimism that government can be a positive force in our lives. I have no problem with some level of critique, but I also think we should understand the landmines we as advocates create for ourselves by making solutions, even small ones, by government out to be fruitless or corrupt at every turn. Of course, our public systems are imperfect, but we will get further as a community by dwelling on where it works (as this blog does in the child care post a little further up).

      In terms of your notion that “busy mom” means whatever industry groups say it means, I think we’re back to Seth’s point that industry doesn’t get to define what “choice” means. All I am trying to say is that I am one person who found the tool meaningful.

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