If you are sending a message to Americans about what we should be eating, it makes more sense to entice us with a plate rather than a pyramid.
Today, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack followed that logic when they unveiled MyPlate, the federal government's latest healthy eating icon. Previous attempts abound; the 20-year-old food pyramid alone has had more makeovers than the "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." The new color-coded plate does not exactly make you want to chow down and seems to play down familiar American staples like meat and potatoes, yet it is easy to read and understand. That is progress.
There are plenty of plants on this plate. Three-quarters of it is composed of items we don't eat enough of, fruits, grains and vegetables. The remaining quarter of the plate is reserved for the protein group, and off to the side, in a spot known as the "satellite" position, a serving of milk, yogurt, cheese or other dairy.
What shows up on the government's plate is a prized spot; like showing up in an official team photo, it signifies acceptance and importance. The National Pork Board quickly jumped on the "friends of plants" bandwagon, issuing a statement saying pork paired well with grains, fruits and vegetables — as if beef, chicken, fish or (gasp!) tofu did not.
Meat, a big player in the pyramids, seemed to lose some of its status on the plate. Potatoes, which were prominently featured in the pyramids, now are merely listed as a starchy vegetable. Sugar and fats slipped out of view. That makes sense. We don't really need to be urged to eat a cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake. Most of us do that do that quite willingly.
The plate is also a lot simpler than the pyramid, which itself was supposed to simplify and condense a century of the government's dietary advice. In an effort to please all parties, the pyramid builders had tossed almost every edible on Earth, like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, into the depictions. Rather than delivering a nutritional message, these overloaded pyramids often generated a response of, "Say what?"
The history of the experts telling Americans what we should eat has been colorful, if not always correct. For instance, an exhibit opening this month at the National Archives in Washington entitled "What's Cooking Uncle Sam?' displays government posters that once urged Americans to "Eat the Carp!" Another, from private industry, proclaimed, "Patriots Eat Doughnuts."
Exegesis of the government's nutritional messages over the years shows that they have slowly moved away from authorship by the food industry — butter, for instance, was once regarded as its own food group — to espouse more of the themes of public health advocates. That has not always worked out well, as the public health crowd has been inclined to load too much information, including their latest research findings, onto what should be a simple missive.
This sort of messaging can play a role in leading us to better health. But it is not the only player. Exercise is also important; one of the few pluses of the old food pyramid was its stick figure climbing some stairs. Attitudes have to change as well. As a nation, we still largely cling to the notion that obesity is a problem caused by individual weakness, and not one in which society stacks the deck.
But the food plate is a step in the right direction. The next step might be to encourage us to reduce our calories — to make that food plate smaller. Not a dinner plate, but a salad plate.