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.