How the Food Pyramid Failed and Why We Needed MyPlate

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Atlantic contributor and designer Michael Bierut on the mind-boggling product of a brainstorming session gone wrong

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So by now you might have heard that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing away with the iconic Food Pyramid. This morning, it announced the country's new nutrition graphic, the somewhat cumbersomely named MyPlate (more on this to come from Marion Nestle).

MyPlate, a colorful pie-chart-style plate graphic showing the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy, replaces the similarly named MyPyramid, the Pyramid's latest incarnation, which most people agree was more or less indecipherable:

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So what exactly made that hard-to-wrap-one's-head-around graphic so hard to wrap one's head around? Perhaps the best analysis came from Atlantic contributor and graphic designer Michael Bierut, who wrote about it a 2005 piece for Design Observer:

First, it retained the beloved pyramid form, but eliminated its implied hierarchy to displace Sweets from its position as King of All Food. So now we have something that can only be described as a pie chart made from only one slice of (inverted) pie. The usefully vague "serving" unit has been replaced with specific measures like cups and ounces; this means that relative amounts can no longer be compared, rendering the barely visible differences between the various groups meaningless without a key. In the fancier version of the pyramid, the key is represented by an uneasy combination of drawings and photographs of food items that appear to be carelessly piled at the structure's base.

Finally, someone has dictated that exercise must be represented as part of the equation. So one side of the pyramid has been turned into a staircase, mounted enthusiastically by one of those odd, neutered sprites that you see everywhere in public sector graphics: neither young nor old, male nor female, raceless and faceless, representing everyone and no one. (I understand why they never have breasts or penises. But why do they never have hands or feet?)

I can clearly imagine this last transformative addition to the pyramid. There must have been one person in all those meetings who kept asking the same question: but how can we integrate exercise into the Pyramid? Finally: here, give me the pencil; what if you just did it like this? Can you just clean this up? Porter Novelli, who supposedly charged 2.5 million bucks for all their work on this project, which includes an interactive element to render twelve customized versions (hence, "MyPyramid") and a pretty zippy website, earned every penny.

Read the full story at Design Observer.

Images: USDA

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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