People – especially my teenage step kids and their friends – frequently ask me nutrition questions. Since I’m a vegetarian and yoga teacher, they figure, I must know something they don’t.
Because I read all the nutrition news that comes my way, I get as confused as anyone about healthy eating. The more you know, the more questions you have about what to eat, in what proportions.
To help solve that problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its food pyramid, the iconic nutritional guide that Gen Xers grew up with. The new guide is a plate sectioned off for fruits, grains, protein and vegetables – with a side of dairy.
Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack formally introduced the new icon, dubbed MyPlate. According to a press release, the USDA intended to create a simple way for consumers to make healthy choices at meal times. Obama said, “As a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country.”
The plate icon does seem to obey all John Maeda’s design laws of simplicity, so it should make the basics of healthy eating easy for anybody to remember. And anybody who wants more details will find extensive further reading on the USDA’s new companion Web site, ChooseMyPlate.gov.
But the discussion about what’s best to put in your body is far from closed. Macrobiotic practitioners, raw foodies, anti-carb extremists and other diet proponents will undoubtedly deconstruct the plate until it’s eventually retired and replaced by an even better icon, based on information we have yet to learn.
Already, big food business is co-opting MyPlate. In a flurry of press releases last week, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Dairy Council, USA Rice Federation and Soyfoods Association of North America all held up the new icon as proof that their products are essential to a healthy diet. The Produce for Better Health Foundation, apparent winner in the battle for the plate, declared, “It’s official! Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.”
There is a healthy public debate being waged on the relative merits of such organizations, how their member companies do business and control the world’s food supply (e.g., the film, “Food Inc.”). Regardless of these organizations’ respective virtues and evils, however, the human body should not serve as their board for a game of Risk. With all sorts of global health issues on the rise – from e-coli to obesity – it’s more important than ever for people to claim control of their own bodies.
MyPlate could provide a tool for that if people use it correctly. It behooves consumers to remain brand-blind when making nutritional choices, and to ask where their food comes from, what’s in it and how it’s made. No meal breaks down as easily as the red, orange, purple and green sections of the icon – but an overly complex or processed collection of dishes could signal the need for simplification. You should be able to tell about how much fruit, grain and so on are on your plate. If you can’t, you have to admit you’re ignorant of what you’re eating. You’re not in control.
A minimal amount of knowledge can save people from the onslaught of corporate-generated hype about what they should and shouldn’t eat. As the battle for plate-share continues, consumers have to keep returning to the basics, and let the common sense of a balanced diet lead their buying and cooking decisions.
Next time a teenager asks me a question about nutrition, I’ll refer them to MyPlate with an editor’s note: What’s on that plate becomes you; don’t let anybody else own it.