Goodbye, Food Pyramid: USDA to Announce a New 'Food Icon'

By Marion Nestle

The triangular nutrition guide, rendered useless by its latest redesign, is being replaced. Here's a preview of what's to come.

mypyramid-page1.png

On May 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will be releasing a new "food icon" to replace the foodless and useless 2005 MyPyramid, shown above.

The USDA's press announcement explained:

The 2010 White House Child Obesity Task Force called for simple, actionable advice to equip consumers with information to help them make healthy food choices. As a result, USDA will be introducing the new food icon to replace the MyPyramid image as the government's primary food group symbol. It will be an easy-to-understand visual cue to help consumers adopt healthy eating habits consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What will the new icon look like? The USDA isn't saying, but William Neuman of The New York Times did some sleuthing. According to his account:

The circular plate, which will be unveiled Thursday, is meant to give consumers a fast, easily grasped reminder of the basics of a healthy diet. It consists of four colored sections, for fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, according to several people who have been briefed on the change. Beside the plate is a smaller circle for dairy, suggesting a glass of low-fat milk or perhaps a yogurt cup.

And WebMD scored an interview with Robert C. Post, PhD, deputy director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, who gave additional hints:

"There will be a 'how-to' that will resonate with individuals. That is the behavioral part that is needed. We need to transcend information—'here's what the science says'—and give people the tools and the opportunities to take action."

He referred to six how-to messages to guide healthy eating that were released with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, and which I enthusiastically posted when the Guidelines were released (I was disappointed that they weren't actually part of the Guidelines):

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1-percent) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals—and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

A bit of history. From 1958 until 1992, the USDA's food guide was a rectangle illustrating four food groups: dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, and grains. In 1992, after a year of extraordinary debate (recounted in my book Food Politics), the USDA released its highly controversial Food Guide Pyramid.

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Why was it controversial?  The food industry objected that the Pyramid make it look as if you were supposed to eat more foods from the bottom of the pyramid than the top (which, of course, was its point).

Nutritionists objected that it encouraged eating too many servings of grains and, therefore, encouraged obesity.

In 2005, the USDA replaced it with the unobjectionable MyPyramid. The food industry liked this one because it did not indicate hierarchies in food choices. Most nutritionists that I know hardly knew what to do with it. It required going online and playing with a website, and was unteachable in clinic settings.

I thought the 1992 pyramid had a lot going for it, particularly the idea that it's better to eat some foods than others. But MyPyramid was a travesty—hopelessly complicated, impossible to teach, and requiring the use of a computer.

Given this situation, the new image is highly likely to be an improvement. If the new icon keeps the hierarchy, conveys concepts easily, and does not require online access, I will consider it a great step forward.

Fingers crossed.

Details about the release:

The announcement will be Thursday, June 2, 10:30 a.m. EST. It will be live-streamed at www.usda.gov/live. All information will be posted at www.cnpp.usda.gov.

If you want to attend in person, it's at USDA's Jefferson Auditorium, USDA South Building (5th Wing Entrance), 1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C.

I'll be there. Stay tuned.


This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: USDA

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/05/goodbye-food-pyramid-usda-to-announce-a-new-food-icon/239645/