The government is ditching the famous food pyramid for a dinner plate as part of the latest changes to USDA dietary guidelines. Here’s what this means for you.
After nearly two decades, it’s time to say goodbye to the food pyramid. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled a new symbol — a plate — that replaces the widely recognized (and often criticized) icon that’s been advising American consumers on what to eat since 1992.
First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin unveiled the new icon: MyPlate, a plate divided into four wedges to represent the basic food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. Next to the plate is a cup standing in for the dairy group. “We’re all bombarded with so many dietary messages that it’s hard to find time to sort through all this information,” Mrs. Obama said in a press conference. “When it comes to eating, what’s more simple than a plate? This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we’re eating.”
“Parents don’t have time to measure 3 ounces of chicken or look up a serving of broccoli or rice,” Mrs. Obama continued. She said parents “have time to take a look at kids’ plates,” which, according to the new guidelines, should contain half fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. She said she plans to start using it immediately with her own daughters.
The new logo is a reminder to help consumers make healthier food choices consistent with the new USDA dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years based on the latest nutrition science and research on eating habits. The plate-shaped logo is one part of a large-scale consumer nutrition initiative by the USDA, that includes an expanded website and other tools and resources. The initiative’s online home will be ChooseMyPlate.gov, which replaces MyPyramid.gov.
The pyramid won’t be officially retired, but for the first time it will be targeted only to nutrition educators. “We realize the food pyramid has to exist because it’s so familiar, but it’s too complicated and has too many messages,” says Robert Post, PhD, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
The latest dietary guidelines, released earlier this year, reflect the nation’s growing obesity epidemic. “They were developed through the filter of having an obese country,” says Dr. Post.
Everyday Health asked Post to explain what else is new about the latest recommendations — and how we can use the rules to eat better, lose weight, and prevent disease.
New Food Rule 1: Eat the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods
Why the change: Americans consume far too many “empty calories” — those that lack good-for-you nutrients like whole grains, lean protein, vitamins, and minerals. “About 260 calories in a 2,000-calorie daily diet could be from indulgences like cookies or soda,” Post says. But the typical American eats closer to 600 to 800 empty calories a day.
That’s why nutrient density is a major focus of the new food guidelines. Nutrient-dense foods, Post explains, are “foods that in their prepared state that have significantly more nutrients per calorie. They’re how consumers can get the most out of their food.” For example, for the same amount ofcalories as soda, fat-free or low-fat milk offers calcium, vitamins, minerals, and protein, where soda has none.
What you can do: Fill half your plate at any given meal with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, which are naturally nutrient dense. Skip add-ons like batters, breading, and butter, and choose sauces and dressings wisely, like vinaigrettes made with healthy olive oil instead of full-fat dressings. Opt for a baked potato instead of French fries, grilled chicken instead of fried, brown rice instead of white rice, and low-fat milk instead of whole milk or soda.
Remember that nutrient-dense doesn’t always mean low-calorie. “There’s a lot to be said for higher-calorie foods with lots of nutrients, such as nuts,” says David Grotto, RD, a dietitian in Illinois and author of 101 Optimal Life Foods. “Research suggests that nuts actually prevent you from over-eating because they help you feel full.” The key is displacing empty calories with nutritious, filling calories.
New Food Rule 2: Eat Fewer Solid Fats and Added Sugars
Why the change: Plain and simple, “there are no nutrients associated with solid fats and added sugars,” Post says. Solid fats include butter, stick margarine, and meat fats. Added sugars are commonly found in packaged goods such as grain-based snacks and desserts, soda, energy drinks, and juice “drinks.”
“Consuming calories from added sugars and solid fats displaces the types of foods that give you beneficial nutrients, like potassium, calcium, fiber, and vitamin D, which Americans don’t get enough of,” he adds. “Eating more empty calories and fewer nutrients can pack on pounds, particularly when we get too little exercise.”
What you can do: Trim fat from meat, remove skin from poultry, and use less table sugar. Watch forsneaky sugar in foods (you’d be surprised how many non-sweet-tasting foods, like ketchup, contain added sugar). Read ingredient lists of packaged foods for tip-off words like corn syrup, sucrose, sugar, honey, syrup, and dextrose. If you spot them in the first few ingredients, avoid the food or eat it less frequently.
Treat desserts, sugar-sweetened sodas, and candy as treats — not as everyday foods. Or rethink your definition of dessert: “A bowl of fruit with an ice cream topping can be as satisfying as a bowl of ice cream with a fruit topping,” Grotto says.
New Food Rule 3: Eat More Seafood
Why the change: Seafood is rich in heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which the typical American diet sorely lacks. The new food guidelines recommend consuming at least 8 ounces of fish, shellfish, and other types of seafood every week (the 2005 guidelines did not recommend a specific amount of fish).
In a recent study, people who added two 4-ounce portions of fatty fish a week to their diet had a whopping 10-fold reduction in risk for a fatal heart attack. “That’s a powerful association,” Grotto says.
What you can do: Swap out your usual meat or poultry dinner twice a week for seafood. A 4-ounce serving of fish is smaller than you might think — it looks like a deck of cards. Pick fish that’s high in omega-3s but low in mercury, such as salmon, trout, or herring.
Pregnant women should eat fish too, but it’s especially important to pick low-mercury varieties (in large amounts the heavy metal has been linked to health problems).
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, limit your intake of white tuna (albacore) to 6 ounces per week, and and don’t eat tilefish, shark, swordfish, or king mackerel, which can be high in mercury. If you’re concerned about the mercury content in tuna, use canned salmon instead for your sandwiches or casseroles.
How to get your kids to eat it? Grill salmon burgers instead of hamburgers, puree anchovies or smoked sardines and add to tomato sauce, or toss teriyaki tuna strips onto a salad.
New Food Rule 4: Show Red Veggies Some Love
Why the change: The previous food guidelines mentioned orange, but not red, vegetables. Now the two have been combined into one veggie sub-group. The guidelines recommend eating more of this group, along with dark-green veggies and beans and peas.
“Red vegetables, such as tomatoes and red peppers, are a great source of vitamin C, lycopene and other antioxidants, and other nutrients,” Post says. (Technically tomatoes are a fruit, but the USDA lumps them into the veggie category because that’s how people tend to eat them.)
What you can do: Most people should eat five-and-a-half cups cups of red and orange vegetables each week. To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, keep in mind that your body is better able to absorb lycopene, the fat-soluble antioxidant in red peppers and tomatoes, in the presence of oil. Lycopene is important because it may improve heart health and lower the risk of cancers like breast and prostate cancer. Keep a supply of jarred red peppers in oil and add them to sandwiches, salads, stir-fries, and omelets for a flavorful nutrient boost.
Tomato sauce is another easy way to boost your red veggie intake, but the ready-made stuff can be loaded with added salt. Look for jars with 300 or fewer milligrams of salt per serving. Some stores even carry no-salt-added versions.
And think beyond the usual suspects to red varieties of vegetables such as cabbage, beans, and Swiss chard. Red cabbage and beans contain anthocyanins, plant chemicals that show promise in preventingheart disease and cancer and protecting brain health. Red beans are the most fiber-rich vegetable in the world, Grotto says.
New Food Rule 5: Eat More Fruit Every Day
Why the change: Okay, we’re cheating a little bit here — this isn’t actually a new rule, but it’s an essential part of the food guidelines we couldn’t not mention. Here’s why: Only 42 percent of Americans eat the two cups of fruit per day that are recommended for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Choosing fruit over less-healthy snacks will automatically make your diet more nutrient-dense and lower in calories.
All fruits are healthy, but berries are among the best – gram for gram, they’re jam-packed with nutrients for very few calories. For example, says Grotto, a whole cup of strawberries has about 50 calories and contains elagic acid that may help the lining of your arteries become more pliable, which could help prevent atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
What you can do: The best way to work more fruits into your diet is to have them on the tarmac ready to go: peeled, cut up, and mixed together in individual serving containers in your fridge.
At least half of your fruit should be in whole fruit form — fresh, frozen, or canned if it’s packed in 100 percent fruit juice — because whole fruit contains fiber that juice doesn’t. You can get the rest of your fruit from 100 percent fruit juices, such as orange juice. Eat fruit for snacks or dessert, add it to salads, and use it in place of sugar, syrups, and other sweet toppings for cereal and pancakes.
New Food Rule 6: Vegetarianism and Veganism Can Be Healthy
Why the change: For the first time, the dietary guidelines include a model for healthy vegetarian and vegan eating.
“In looking at a variety of eating patterns around the world, we now recognize that vegetarian diets that include dairy and eggs, and vegan diets, can provide enough of the nutrients we need to be healthy,” Post says. “We know that with proper planning, you can get enough protein from dairy, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds, and other nutrients from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.”
What you can do: Not surprisingly, the biggest concern with meat-free diets is getting enough protein. You’ll need to replace meat with other foods that qualify as complete proteins — which means they contain all of the essential amino acids. Complete proteins include dairy, eggs, soy (such as tofu and edamame), and certain grains, such as amaranth and quinoa.
Watch out for the salt: Veggie burgers and other frozen meat substitutes can be packed with sodium. “Frozen food is an equal opportunity employer of high sodium, whether it’s vegetarian or not,” Grotto says.
Vegans, and vegetarians who don’t get enough dairy and eggs, may also be deficient in certain nutrients, namely vitamins B12 and D, calcium, and iron, so it’s a good idea to talk to a registered dietitian, who may recommend that you take supplements or make other changes to your diet.
Why is weight management important?
In addition to helping you feel and look better, reaching a healthier body weight is good for your overall health and well being. If you are overweight or obese, you have a greater risk of developing many diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
The secret to success is making changes and sticking with them.
- First – Find out What You Eat and Drink. This a key step in managing your weight.
- Next – Find out What to Eat and Drink. Get a personalized Daily Food Plan – just for you – to help guide your food choices.
- Then – Make Better Choices. Everyone is different. Compare what you eat and drink to what you should eat and drink. The ideas and tips in this section can help you make better choices, which can have a lasting impact on your body weight over time.
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