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Government nutritional estimates for “mixed dishes”–where do they come from?

The federal “MyPlate” program has expanded its consumer information on dietary guidelines but some of it looks suspiciously old-hat and soft on nutritional crime, very much in keeping with the USDA’s traditional approach of pandering to the processed food industry. I stumbled across it while helping my daughter find school lunch nutrition information for her latest science project, which was to analyze her new public school’s lunch program.

Of course, my 7th grade daughter’s reaction to her first day in a real live public school cafeteria last month was shock. Because she’s diabetic and vegetarian, we agreed the best strategy for her would be to bring her standard lunch from home–PBJ on whole wheat with an apple. She had trouble the first day with the routine–shove through the cafeteria line, squeeze in at a table, shovel down food, run for the bell.

What did the other kids eat? I asked. “They ate crap,” she answered without so much as a pause. “Pizza and french fries, stuff they can eat in about five minutes while gossiping with their friends. They hardly even notice.”

Now–as I’ve said before–peanut butter and jam on whole wheat is not gourmet, but it’s fairly nutritious (beats Oscar Meyer bologna for protein, believe it or not) and with a small apple, it’s reasonably worthwhile and you can eat it fairly quickly–certainly within 15 minutes, if you can shove through the cafeteria line and find a seat. If you make friends, as my daughter quickly did, you can even find some time for gossiping and having fun. And it costs less than a dollar and takes less than 5 minutes to pack at home. The school lunch is $2.35, and yes they do offer apples and some sort of packaged salad stuff and skim milk, but as my daughter noticed, few of the kids actually eat those items. Maybe the milk–well, at least offering the fresher food is a start.

Still–“crap” is not that far off. Pizza AND fries? A tough act to follow with anything but gallbladder surgery at 40.

And as she looks at the school menus online for September–they declare that they follow the USDA school nutrition guidelines–we notice a lot of things that aren’t really sound thinking from a diabetic’s point of view. A lot of menus that don’t come close to matching the ChooseMyPlate.gov guidelines, which call for half the plate to be vegetables and fruits (in that descending order of quantity), a quarter of the plate protein, a quarter complex carbohydrate.

“There’s a lot more meat,” she says. “Actually, my friend had the chicken patty today and spat it out. She said it wasn’t chicken. My other friend said it was, it was just cafeteria chicken.” Sounds like some of her new friends have a better take on the school food than the government does. My bet–the chicken patty is like standard bologna, only about half is anything that actually came from a chicken–including fat and skin–and the rest is probably starchy and high-salt fillers.

So, speaking of food that really isn’t as good as it seems…

The ChooseMyPlate.gov brochure on “mixed foods”, which is what I promised up at the top, might be part of the same sad thing. Here’s the sample chart they offer for things like pizza, lasagne, double cheeseburgers, burritos…that are supposedly hard to judge on nutrition.

MixedDishes.pdf 

Any takers on this one? My first impression is that the calorie counts are probably low–maybe as little as half–for a standard chain restaurant or frozen-entree serving of any of these items. Probably because a USDA recommended standardized “portion” for nutrition labeling purposes is very small compared with what people are actually eating and what companies are serving.

My second impression is–fruit servings? for pizza? who are they kidding, and why is this column even in here? Fruit is optional–it’s a carb. Nonstarchy vegetables with some actual vitamins and fiber are required eating. It’s pretty obvious from the table that the vegetables are pretty scant in this list of “mixed foods” too–mixed in this case seems to mean starches and fats plus some form of meat.

And what isn’t listed–the salt and fat and total carb. The fiber, vitamins and minerals. Most of this food is high in stuff that should be low, and low in stuff that should be high.

On second thought, maybe we should just read down this table for suggestions on what not to serve.

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