I remember learning about the Food Pyramid in elementary school, and for myself and most of my generation, that was the only formal nutrition education I received. Eat healthy, follow the food pyramid. I had no idea, however, how I was supposed to apply a pyramid to my actual food choices. I recall celebrating the recommendation that carbohydrates like bread should be the foundation of my diet and thinking that the little dots throughout the pyramid (meant to represent fats and added sugars) were just decorative polka dots, but that was the extent of my understanding. There were some lesser-known older recommendations from the USDA (you can find a full history of nutrition guidelines on the USDA website), but the Food Pyramid imagery took hold as the most recognizable symbol of ‘healthy eating’ for Americans.
By 2005, however, the USDA decided to give the beloved pyramid a makeover and created MyPyramid, which added the element of exercise, and peoples were less than receptive to the rebranding. While the overall message was good (fruits and vegetables should each be about as important as grains; exercise is a key component of ‘a healthier you’), the graphic came across as confusing and somewhat sloppy with its half-cartoon/half-photograph images of food heaped at the bottom like they had fallen onto the floor. Most people I know never even saw this image or perhaps simply blocked it from memory.
In 2010, with the release of the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA launched an entirely new image with a non-pyramid campaign: MyPlate. This shift brought the dietary recommendations directly to Americans’ dinner plates and made the concept of ‘healthy eating’ more relatable. For the first time, there was an image people could apply at each meal; where the pyramid was an abstract structure representing overall diet, the public could easily look at their plates and ask themselves: how does this compare to MyPlate?
The dietary breakdown of MyPlate matches MyPyramid but portrays the information as a clean visual: about 25% of your plate should be a protein, 25% should be grains (or a starchy vegetable), and the other 50% should be a combination of fruits and vegetables. Dairy is also shown as an add-on for meals (stuck on the side as a presumed glass of milk). Though every given meal obviously can’t fit this template, MyPlate’s greatest attribute is that it is simple to understand, making it particularly great for teaching children from a young age.
The resources that accompany MyPlate are phenomenal though perhaps not as well known. On www.choosemyplate.gov, you’ll find a hub of information like a MyPlate in-depth breakdown, printable handouts, meal plans, tip sheets, online quizzes, infographics, a BMI calculator, and more for a huge range of audiences including children, students, adults, families, professionals, and non-English speaking readers.
As a Registered Dietitian, my number one concern is always how I can best share healthy eating guidelines in a way that makes sense for patients and clients. I need to explain things in a way people can apply throughout their day without overcomplicating things and risking burnout. MyPlate does just that. While the guidelines are generalized and may need tweaking for individual needs, it’s overall a good mental image to keep yourself in check throughout the day. I highly recommend looking through the MyPlate site – and I challenge you to take the MyPlate quizzes and see how your knowledge stacks up.