A tale of two plates

New Plate symbol replaces the Pyramid

It was the best of meals…it was the worst of meals .

Last week the Federal Government debuted the new MyPlate as a replacement to MyPyramid, which was deemed confusing and irrelevant to most busy people who didn’t have time to decipher it.  According to the first lady, “..This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we’re eating and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country…… ” As long as they’re half full (the plates) of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, we’re golden. That’s how easy it is.”

Hmm…is that so?  I challenge that the new MyPlate, while being an improvement on MyPyramid, is still not going to be the Country’s solution to unhealthy eating.

Let’s examine two potential meals that would both technically fall into the parameters of the MyPlate program and see what meal is better nutritionally.

Meal 1:  The budget-friendly, kid-friendly dinner
Vegetable: French Fries, cooked at home but from a frozen bag + 1 cup of “Iceberg Garden” salad from Fresh Express + 1 Tbsp of Hidden Valley Ranch Dressing
Fruit: Canned Peaches, in lite syrup
Protein:  A breaded chicken breast, such as these boneless, breaded popcorn chicken bites by Tyson
Grain:  1 slice of Orowheat Honey Wheat Family  bread with a small pat of butter
Dairy:  Low-fat chocolate milk……it’s like having dessert with your dinner

Meal 2: A Foodie’s delight
Vegetable:  Local, organic asparagus, sauteed in clarified butter, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and slivered almonds
Fruit + Dairy: a sliced  organic apples paired with an assortment of imported soft cheeses
Grain:  1 slice of  whole grain Artesian French bread, with Olive oil and vinegar for dipping
Protein:  Pine nut encrusted Halibut with roasted onions

Are these two meals really that different?  I think the answer is “yes” and “no”.
First, how are they different.  Obviously one is made of predominately processed foods, and likely contains a slough of food additives, nitrates and poor quality base ingredients.  Can you guess which one?? Obvious, hopefully!  Also, meal #2 includes organic items, thus is likely to include less pesticide than meal #1.  The veggie in meal #1 isn’t likely to provide much in the way of nutritional value, and the bread probably doesn’t have a ton of whole grains.   There is more sugar in meal #1, some of which comes from added sugars versus just the sugars naturally occurring in fruits.  Also, in my opinion meal #2 seems a lot more delicious than meal #1, but of course I am biased since I made these two meals up.  You can probably think of your own differences too.

But, how are they the same – that is what is really interesting to me!
I would argue that neither one are exceptionally nutritious without some downfalls.  The downfalls in meal #1 seem obvious: processed food, lack of fiber, lack of “color”.  But meal #2 has probably the same amount of fiber and has a lot more fat than #1.  Yes, the fat may be from healthier (and more expensive) sources, but the caloric implications are not to be overlooked.  Also, both contain significant sources of saturated fats.   Both are heavy in animal products (by design, but this isn’t so uncommon for an American meal), and light in plant-based sources of nutrient dense food.  They are also void of variety in the vegetables included.  I’d argue that potatoes and onions have similar nutritional benefits (surprise, potatoes do have SOME nutritional value!), but of course asparagus, being ‘green’ and all, must have a lot more to offer than iceberg salad, right?  Yes, from a vitamin perspective, but not enough to necessarily offset the high volume of animal fat sources, and just the overall fat content in that dish.  I’d also argue that both meals contain a significant amount of sodium too.  Both grain sources are more refined than whole, despite what might be stated on the front of the package or in their respective names., this is usually the case with bread.

Still, in all I’d rather have meal #2 from a taste AND nutrition perspective.  And this is something that I would eat.  However, the point I’m trying to make is that there is still a lot to be considered when following the new MyPlate approach to balanced eating.  The nuances between types of protein, vegetables and grains can make significant differences in diet quality, weight and food behaviors.   I don’t think the average person can necessarily accurately evaluate the overall pros/cons of their meal JUST based on the proportions of each food type or just based on the cost of ingredients or regionality of their food.

Also, are we talking about a 12″ plate, a 10″ plate, or a platter?  This makes a HUGE difference in portion size!!
Oh, and my other ‘beef’ with this new system is the implication that we need to consume dairy at every meal.  Thanks Dairy Council………

2 thoughts on “A tale of two plates

  1. CJ June 8, 2011 / 1:24 am

    i agree on the many points you make. i would like to add that perhaps a new reality approach to take is to use the MyPlate for at least one meal. I feel this would be a huge dietary improvement for many folks.

    On a curious note: I am toying with the idea of asking my families what their thoughts are on MyPlate vs MyPyramid and if they would or do use either. I’ll keep you posted.


    • offwhiteliving July 10, 2011 / 5:22 pm

      Hey CJ,
      yes I agree that this is just a start and the one meal approach would be good. I still prefer MyPyramid, but that is likely because I had so much time to work with it and understand it as part of the curriculum of our program. I am totally biased that way. I can see how, for the genera public without training in nutrition, it is confusion. Bottom line in my opinion: It’s darned near impossible to make nutrition advice fall into 1 simple icon, but it is a start. The other challenge is that having a tool doesn’t always mean it’s easy to interpret. That is why I LOVE applied nutrition – how to acutally make healthy choices (what to buy, how much to cook, how to create a whole meal plan for the day, etc).


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