Friday, June 3, 2011

USDA Plate Postscript

Yesterday, the USDA unveiled a new food planning tool in the shape of a plate. This plate is a vast improvement over the food pyramids from years past and I applaud the USDA for not putting graphics of food on the plate. If you go to the USDA's website for the food plate, there is additional useful information on the kinds of food in each category. The vegetable and fruit category is good and you can click to a "food gallery" with photos and serving sizes in cups and by inches.

I also think the protein category is reasonable. It includes animal protein as well as beans, peas, nuts and seeds. Much better than the older version. The dairy category got a bit lost and not surprisingly so given the milk lobby. This category tells people to choose fat-free or low-fat milk (which are highly processed) and if you choose whole milk, the fat content makes that milk count as empty calories. There is still a great deal we need to learn about fats and how they impact the body. Are they "empty" calories? I don't think so. And, I also firmly believe less processing is better so I'm suspicious of the no-fat and low-fat dairy products.

Onto the grain category... even more disappointing. The USDA gets credit for defining whole grains and refined grains and including examples of both. They caved to the grain lobby by including whole wheat products (whole wheat bread, whole wheat crackers, whole wheat sandwich buns and rolls) in the list of whole grain examples and by including photographs of whole wheat cereal flakes, processed-looking oatmeal and what I'm pretty sure are WheatThins.

On one hand, they are correct in that the products on the "whole grains" list are certainly a more healthful choice than the items on the "refined grains" list. However, many highly processed and overly refined products are still allowed to get away with a whole grain or whole wheat label. If the USDA is including these types of "whole grains" in this category it also needs to update the rules and regulations on what "whole wheat" means while they reform food labeling. I'm hopeful those updates are on the way.

What I wonder, however, is how many people actually eat on a plate anymore. Some data suggests at least 21% of Americans eat a fast food dinner two or three times per week. I suspect the fast food for lunch numbers are even higher. Last I checked you don't get plates at such places. It will be interesting to see the reaction from the fast food contingent. The USDA has wisely released rules and guidelines for the use of the new plate icon and I suspect there are groups of people in conference rooms right now attempting to figure out how to put the plate on their packages. I don't really think the plate will soon appear on fast foods or the bags it comes in. Perhaps we also need a MyBag label...

The point? USDA did create a much improved food planning tool. It still has areas for improvement and there are still signs of special interest influence. This is the way our Government works. It can be different; for now, it is not. This tool is a great step in what I hope will be a concerted strategy to improve the way we eat. I can only hope the future will stress in the importance of eating whole, real food and avoiding the highly processed foods all too frequent in the American diet. If you need some help making better whole food choices while we wait for the USDA to catch up, see The Real Food Plate. 

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