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The new MyPlate icon–fantastic or plastic?

Everyone in the food press seems to be weighing in on the new replacement for the much-cursed USDA Food Pyramid in all (both?) its glorious confusion and obfuscation of real nutritional goals that might have (and should have) undermined the beef, corn, pork, corn, sugar, corn, and soy industries if they’d ever been presented honestly.

So where does that leave us? With ears of fresh corn that are more than 50 cents apiece in Los Angeles supermarkets, and the new…

USDA MyPlate logo

Already, the USDA’s MyPlate web site is in a certain amount of branding trouble (and of course, that’s what counts most in America): the Texas DMV had already bagged “MyPlates.com” for its vanity license plate division (highly unappetizing), and Livestrong.com already has its own well-established “MyPlate” food calculator and fan base. And those items come up first on Google searches. As in, the whole first page or more. The government site ranks way down the list and had to water down the impact of its original name choice with “choose” just to get a URL. Can it elbow out the competition just by bolding the “MyPlate” part?

What really counts are the food and nutrition opinion maker comments, though. And a lot of those are detracting in a nitpicking way that I think kind of misses the point.

The first thing they all have to say is that the plate looks dumbed down. Forgive me, but wasn’t the Food Pyramid’s unreadable and unusable design a large part of the problem? The MyPlate icon is simpler and more direct, and it names real food groups, not “Big Mac” or, on the haute side of things, any of Ferran Adrià’s foams. No wonder foodies and populists alike are wondering what it has to do with them.

A small sampling of the main arguments:

MyPlate: The Food Pyramid for dummies? (LA Times): Dr. Andrew Weil and others discuss what’s still wrong with the new icon. Weil says “fruits” could still include fruit juice, which is usually a useless sugar bomb in comparison with whole fruit, and he worries that the protein section, which comes with a guideline to eat 8 oz. of fish per week, might encourage unthinking people to increase their mercury intake since swordfish is on the guideline menu, as are some of the generally overfished popular species of fish. Weil’s not wrong about the fruit juice vs. actual fruit, but his hand-wringing about fish is really geared for well-off readers who can afford to eat much of it. All the fishes he names are extremely expensive per pound in comparison with supermarket chicken or ground beef. He, like many of the commentators around the newsrooms,  seems to have foodie blinders on to how most people have to make their shopping choices when they do cook.

I find myself more in sympathy with Renee Lynch of the LA Times food section–her take is that it’s an improvement over the unreadable food pyramid but that really, given the carb differences and nutritional values, half the plate should be fresh nonstarchy vegetables, not veggies and fruit. Fruit, she says, should be one option for carb, grains another. As the mother of a diabetic kid who needs carbs, but in moderate, calculated amounts for her insulin, I have to applaud the half-the-plate as vegetables, and nod my head that for most people, a piece of fruit might be a decent stand-in for a serving of grains. For my daughter, the grains–or beans or lentils, or fresh corn, or a potato–are complex carbohydrates (in plain English, starch with fiber) that digest a little slower and help prevent foods higher in simple sugars (fruit, for preference) from spiking her blood sugar if she eats a little of each at the same meal.

William Neumann of the NY Times gathered similar criticisms a few days ago, most prominent among them Dr. Marion Nestle’s, which I found surprisingly disheartening even if I can see her points. Most people, she says, won’t find the food groups on the MyPlate icon helpful or even decipherable because they eat fast food and prepared frozen meals-for-one with dishes that mix starches, proteins and vegetables in ways that make it hard to tell what category they really belong in and how much of each they’re really getting. Plus the starch and fat factors (to say nothing of sodium) aren’t really reflected in the MyPlate plate.  But “It’s better than nothing,” she grumbles.

More down-to-earth if along the same lines is humor columnist Pam Lobley of newjerseynewsroom.com who complains that the ideal food plate in the icon looks nothing like what any of her family members see when they eat–partly because fast food is a part of the routine, partly because they eat in the car on the way to the kids’ soccer matches or what have you, partly because breakfast is a bowl of cereal with no vegetables involved. Plus, she says, vegetables are expensive in comparison with the normal vegetable-free diet, and cites a neighbor’s experience with larger food bills.

I think most people need to work a little harder at their shopping skills because it’s quite possible to get cheaper vegetables with some nutrition and flavor in them. They’re not being helped quite enough here by the government’s food campaign and they’re certainly being misled by the food magazines and cooking shows that only feature chi-chi vegetables like asparagus (which I love, don’t get me wrong, but it’s 3 bucks a pound). Fresh carrots and cabbage and full-size (not baby) bok choy are worthwhile, delicious lightly cooked or raw, noshable for snacks and packed lunches. They’re also easy to find and usually under a dollar a pound. Makes a big difference on a budget. Whole heads of cauliflower and broccoli with the stalks left on, not “crowns”, are also a lot cheaper than the tiny expensive bags of pre-broken florets the stores now try to con you with and you can eat nearly the whole thing. A head of cauliflower lasts us two or three dinners and takes about 3 minutes to steam in the microwave.

But back to Lobley’s column.

Lobley also thinks the real culprit is the ease with which we can now bypass the dreaded fluorescent dressing room and three-way mirrors if we want to buy new clothes. We don’t have to see what our backsides look like in sagging underwear to buy a new pair of jeans. If we did, she contends, we’d be working a lot harder and the vegetables would start to seem like a good investment. (Frankly, so would a fresh packet of underwear that wasn’t hanging together by the worn out elastic…)

Seriously, though. What do all these kvetches tell me?

For one thing, the commentators all seem to be saying it’s imperfect. Well, so it is. They don’t deserve nutrition-expert credits for pointing that out. No one division of food into nutrient groups is going to be perfect–even with whole foods, there are a lot of overlaps. Beans are starches AND proteins, cheese is a protein AND a dairy AND usually a fat, potatoes are technically a vegetable but actually a starch and so is corn, and celery should probably be counted as crunchy water. That’s life. This new icon is still miles ahead of the Food Pyramid in any of its guises, and the guidelines are a good deal more direct.

And let’s face it. It’s supposed to be a general reminder, not the Savior of the Western Waistline. No matter what food groups icon the government puts out, you still have to do the work yourself.

Second, the “nobody really eats like this” argument and that eating fresh vegetables and fruits for half the plate  is impractical. The whole point is that people probably should. That’s what most of the diet studies on cancer and heart disease have found in the past 60 years or so. It’s why Michelle Obama has been pushing for school gardens and more available vegetables and putting that priority on the redesigned icon.

Not enough vegetables? If you want to eat two nonstarchy vegetables at dinner instead of one, that’s even better. If you want to eat a tomato and cucumber salad or some leftover grilled eggplant and peppers as part of an Israeli-style breakfast the next morning, I can only say hafla! (“feast!”) Go for it.

So what do I think of the icon?

One thing I like about the plate visual is that if you’re going to make your dinner plate look like this and don’t pile it on 5 inches deep like a 300-pounder at an all-u-can-eat salad bar, you’ll feel like you’ve got some of everything and one plateful will be enough.

Another thing I like about the circular arrangement is that if you want to eat less, you just make the portions smaller by giving the plate of food a little more space all the way around the rim and you can keep the same basic proportions.

In fact, my one serious complaint about the MyPlate icon is the lack of food pictures to go with it. I know they take away from the streamlined, airbrushed, modern look of the plate. But no food pictures leaves you with synthetic, plastic-looking shapes in a form that looks more like the Windows icon series than a food guide. Without pictures of food, does the modern generation know what a protein looks like? (and is it supposed to be purple?) Or a vegetable? Why is the milk blue instead of white?

Actually, the new MyPlate looks like a high-color update of the old Four Food Groups I got taught in grade school, only more Microsoft than the early-’70s brown and orange lozenges that were probably meant to capture the popular feel of The Partridge Family back when that was in and David Cassidy had the world’s biggest fan club.

But you know, as imperfect as the “Meat, Dairy, Breads and Cereals, and Fruits and Vegetables” categories were, they worked okay. You could teach them in school, and you could give examples where they didn’t fit perfectly and the kids had to think about them a little and make some decisions. I think the MyPlate divisions are simple and fundamental enough that if they do get taught with some discussion in elementary school, today’s kids will be perfectly capable of explaining them to their befuddled parents who were raised during the no-nutrition-in-school Reagan and Bush years.

(Bonus factor: If you ever suffer a momentary crisis of confidence in how you look, à la Pam Lobley, and want to erase the memories of your last visit to the department store dressing room’s three-way mirror, just find an old David Cassidy clip on YouTube. One of them (called “Rock Me Baby,” but not the blues classic, more’s the pity), I think from the Mike Douglas Show or maybe Dick Cavett, had him alone on stage with a microphone and wearing–I swear it’s so–head-to-toe mismatched silver lamé. You gotta see this. Country-singer-style lamé half-length jacket with decorative studs, silver weave shirt, KISS-style platform boots, again with the studs, and silver weave jeans. From the way he was standing with his knees clutched together the whole agonizing song, I could only think, “Boy, that must chafe!” and I suddenly felt much better. Because this was him at the height of his considerable popularity and good looks. Which meant I, as my imperfect self, didn’t look half as bad in comparison. And I had better taste in shoes. And I kind of lost my appetite for a few hours after watching him for the two minutes of the video, so I got the diet rejuvenation benefit as well.)

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