Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
The government is dishing up healthy eating advice, not with a new Food Pyramid, but with an image of a plate.
The new icon (www.choosemyplate.gov), called My Plate, is divided into four sections - fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. It replaces the familiar pyramid image, which was first introduced in 1992 and revised in 2005. Many nutritionists believed the pyramid had become too complicated for people to understand easily.
"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," said first lady Michelle Obama during the presentation Thursday.
"When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too. But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. As long as they're half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, we're golden. That's how easy it is."
The symbol is part of a healthy eating initiative that will convey seven key messages from the government's dietary guidelines, including: enjoy food but eat less; avoid oversized portions; make half your plate fruits and vegetables; drink water instead of sugary drinks; switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk; compare sodium in foods; and make at least half your grains whole grains, says Robert Post, deputy director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
The initiative will be promoted in a multi-year effort with support from professional health groups, businesses and industry. It will include public service announcements, placemats in restaurants, videos and social media messages, Post says.
The goal is to make healthy eating easier for individuals and families, he says. This is all part of the first lady's Let's Move campaign.
Currently, about two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese, putting them at an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.
From a practical point of view, the plate image really works to help people make better food choices, nutritionists say.
"We eat on plates, not pyramids," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian in New York City and a nutrition blogger for food.usatoday.com. "This is a graphic that everyone can relate to and visualize."
Although many people recognize the pyramid image, "not many people really knew what it meant," she says.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago, agrees. "I've already been successfully using a plate icon for more than a decade to educate my clients about healthy eating. My clients find it helpful because they don't eat off of a pyramid, they eat off of a plate and it's a tool that immediately makes sense.
"A plate may work to simplify decision-making at the point where it really counts - on the plate," she says.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and veteran consumer advocate, says the plate "is a huge step forward. I love it that the messages begin with - enjoy your food."
"I'm hoping this is a signal that USDA will be aligning agricultural policy with these new recommendations and start promoting fruit and vegetable production."
David Kirchhoff, president and CEO of Weight Watchers, says the new icon "is really simple and easy to understand. My kids can understand this vs. the icon it is replacing that had gotten too complicated and tried to do too many things at once."
If the new icon does nothing else but teach consumers "one key message and that is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, I think it'll have been a huge success," he says.
He says Weight Watchers will be talking about the icon at meetings and on its website.