Active Voice: Impressions of the New USDA "MyPlate"
By Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM, is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthful living. She is the current president of ACSM’s Greater New York Regional Chapter, and she is a member of the American Dietetic Association’s House of Delegates. She maintains a private practice, is a consultant and has been on many national television and radio programs. She was the host of the popular television series “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids,” which focused on issues of parenting, nutrition and physical activity in families. She is the author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes™: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great.

For more than a decade, the USDA food guide pyramid was the icon used to convey the message behind the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The last pyramid included physical activity – much to the accolades of health care professionals, like us. It was my understanding that the Obama administration was quite firm on the development of some other shape to be used to teach Americans the best way to eat for optimal health.

I am wholeheartedly in favor of using some picture to teach healthy habits to Americans of all ages. My greatest challenge with MyPlate is that it lacks physical activity and does not give any caloric guidelines or portion sizes. So, if you have a ten-inch plate or an 18-inch plate, as long as it is within the ascribed proportions, you should be okay, right? Wrong. MyPlate relies too heavily on Web access to obtain specific content for each of the food groups – making it challenging for practitioners who have face time with individuals or groups. Perhaps in the future, there can be some consistency in the messaging among the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the image used to convey this message and the Nutrition Facts Panel.

Indeed, the MyPlate image is great for small kids – it’s as if we’re back to the four food groups (perhaps some of you are too young to recall that). Actually, that’s five groups, with dairy on the side. Also absent are fats, oils and sweets, called “discretionary calories.” The fact is we need some objective information for making suggestions and recommendations to our clients, patients and friends because the Internet and other media sources are overflowing with conflicting information.

Disease- or ailment-specific diets, quick fixes, and instant results are what many people are seeking. The answer is quite simple: if we eat foods closer to the way they are found in nature, we will be a healthier nation. We can all agree that eating less junk and highly processed food is ideal – although they are sometimes unavoidable. If we set standards for healthy eating that are too high and unachievable (without sensitivity to budget, culture or food preferences), the great majority of people will feel that it is not worth it to try.

I often explain that small changes are lasting changes and that foods that are good for you taste good as well. Also, just because you exercise, it doesn’t mean you need to eat a pound of chicken, turkey, beef or fish. Nor do you need a protein shake. Carbohydrates are not bad. Remember, our bodies need glucose for fuel and function, and choosing foods higher in fiber help with satiety, reducing cholesterol, and perhaps reducing our risk for colon cancer as well.

The basic laws of science prevail: making food choices is not about taste alone or cravings, but about nutrients required for structure, function and hopefully disease prevention. As we learn more about the relationship between food, exercise and health, our recommendations may and should change. We need to communicate this information in terms that our clients and the public can understand.