In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—supported by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and First Lady Michelle Obama—announced that the government was replacing the 19-year-old food pyramid with a plate divided into quarters (fruits, vegetables, grains and protein) with a cup of milk on the side. This month, Harvard's School of Public Health announced its alternative, which calls for similar quarters (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein) with a cup of water on the side. We talked with nutrition scientist Christopher Gardner, associate professor of medicine at Stanford and a 30-year vegan, about the pros and cons to the government’s MyPlate and Harvard’s Healthy Eating plate.
Both plates give protein a quarter of the dish space. What’s your take on that?
The other ones are foods, and protein isn’t a food. Fruits and vegetables, I’d know where to go [in the grocery].
So that’s a joint flaw with both plates?
It’s a joint flaw—and a joint strength. They’re really more similar than different. In a very quick way, they’re trying to summarize an enormous amount of complex information. There isn’t a menu. There aren’t portions. They both say that half your diet should be vegetables and fruits. The balance should come from some distribution of grains and protein. Harvard doesn’t have dairy. Harvard has water. Harvard has oils. How many people eat oils? It’s kind of funny that “oils” is a food group.
Courtesy of USDA
Courtesy Harvard School of Public Health
Half of both plates are fruits and vegetables. Any problem there?
Is it half in volume or half in calories? The plate denotes volume, I think. They’re trying to make something as simple as possible for very general guidance. On both, what they’ve got is one image with five or six categories they’re trying to aggregate everything we eat into. It’s even simpler than the food pyramid, which was this bizarre shape. And no one eats off pyramids. They eat off plates. Is that enough of a rationale to say a plate is better than a pyramid?
And there’s no dessert. Do they recommend we never have any dessert?
Both plates use words (“fruits,” “vegetables”) without pictures.
There’s one version of the pyramid that doesn’t have any words in it. There’s another one that has pictures. When you make foods small enough, a lot of people are like, “What is that one? Is that a peanut, or is that a garbanzo bean?” In every case, you can make a pro and a con. The con is it’s oversimplified. People will find a way around eating poorly and justifying it by the plate: “I consider white flour a grain, and a quarter of my diet was white grain today, and the plate supports that.” Or you could make a pro. We needed something really simple. We wanted to teach something in school to kids. We really want them to eat vegetables and fruits. Is it that Americans will only take sound bites? These are sound bites.
We don’t have any studies. Let’s go ahead and put 1,000 people on the Harvard plate and 1,000 people on Michelle [Obama’s] plate, MyPlate. Let’s give them six months and just hand them these graphics and these principles and see what they’re eating at the end of six months. Nobody’s going to do that study. For some people, I bet this will help. For a lot of people, it won’t do the right thing for them. That’s the challenge we all face. Some people are visual. Some people like colored pictures. Some people like graphs. Some people like nutrient labels. Health professionals have never found one sound-bite message that will work [for everyone].
So what should we do?
We should have home economics in school. People should cook more.
But in home ec kids wind up mostly baking cookies.
We need to revise home ec. That’s one of the reasons I mentioned it. It has this horrific history. We might have to call it something else.
I think home ec teachers’ budgets are tight, so they can’t afford to buy lots of fruits and vegetables.
That’s the problem. Here we’ve got a structure that undermines what would be the right thing to do. All we have money to do is a graphic. I would not be willing to guess how many people it will help. I would hazard to guess it will be small.
What do you think of the cup of milk on the government’s MyPlate?
I don’t drink any milk. I’m a vegan.
For health reasons?
Ethical reasons, animal rights reasons, global reasons. Animal rights first. Global warming second. Health third. They’re all in line. I eat eggs if I know the chickens personally. I don’t know any dairy cows personally.
So no Starbucks for you?
Soy chai. But I don’t really go to Starbucks. I buy my own, and I make it at home.
What are good calcium sources, other than dairy?
Lots of foods have calcium. Lots have better rates of absorption than dairy…some have worse. In terms of amount of calcium….dairy is hands down the winner. For the same number of calories or grams, dairy has much more than the other foods. But there are lots of other sources. The more challenging question is…do we need so much in the United States because we are so sedentary and do so little weight bearing activity each day? If we did more of that, would the calcium RDA be lower? [Editor’s note: Both calcium-rich foods and exercise help maintain bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.]
What about the idea that drinking milk helps prevent osteoporosis?
Extra weight-bearing exercise makes bones stronger. If you don’t drink milk in the United States, and you switch to water, can you get that much calcium from something else? It’s harder. Can you get that much protein from other things? Absolutely. I do think we don’t drink enough water.
What about Harvard’s call for “healthy protein,” not just “protein,” and “whole grains,” not just “grains? Is this plate better than the government’s plate?
It gives more specifics. It’s going to be better for the portion of the population that would like a little more information.
What about the running man with Harvard’s plate?
They put a person running up the pyramid. You got people saying, “This is a food pyramid. Why is he running?” Not all physical activity is exercise. The reason I think that’s super important is exercise is dissuasive for certain people. If you tell an overweight person to exercise, that’s way different than recommending he take the stairs instead of the elevator. Physical activity is moving around.
What would your dream plate, or pyramid, look like? How would you design a graphic?
I wouldn’t dare to do it. There’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I cook many different things. I don’t know how I’d represent them in one plate. If I were to come up with the perfect, the healthiest breakfast ever, and I gave you the exact recipe, the right pan and everything, would you eat that one breakfast for the rest of your life? You’d be bored to tears. I think broccoli is hands down one of the best foods in the world. But if I asked you to eat broccoli every day, you’d quit. For me, my plate would [be an empty circle with the words], “Cook more at home with your family.”
And move around more, too?
I don’t think physical activity belongs on the plate. It’s essential to health, but it doesn’t belong with the plate.
Yes. It’s related to what I said about cooking more with your family. One of the things that’s been a disservice lately in the world of cooking has been all the chef TV shows. It’s kind of elevated cooking to the idea that you have to cook this fabulous thing—or you don’t know how to cook. What did you have for dinner? I got this corn, and I steamed it, and it took me two minutes. And I had some leftovers. [Food author] Mark Bittman wrote a great op-ed. Make a salad, rice and beans, and stir fry. If one night you had the salad, one night the rice and beans, and one night the stir fry, you would be a cook. There’s a wonderful woman I’m working with now at our local sustainable restaurant. She said, “Please call me ‘cook.’” The ‘chef’ makes it untouchable. People would be more inclined to cook if they didn’t feel they had to be a chef.
Read our 2010 story with Professor Gardner.
Have an idea for us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I think the plate concept makes a lot more sense than the pyramid. I was struck by the similarities to Michio Kushi's plate-shaped graph of "General Proportions of the Macrobiotic Diet," from his book The Macrobiotic Way. Macrobiotic percentages for foods are different from these current recommendations, but healthy nonetheless (at least in my opinion). I'm a retired teacher and I used to accompany my little students (K & first grade) into the school cafeteria. It's so overwhelming for little kids to have to sit down in front of a plate of food and eat it all in 15-20 minutes! Their stomachs still don't hold very much. Alarmed by so much whole fruit & vegetables being thrown out at the end of lunch, I used to try to get food service to allow the kids to have their fruit for a midmorning snack and something else from that overwhelming plate in the afternoon, to keep them full & happy all day, sort of like the way I fed my own children at home when they were little. Of course it was never allowed! There are so many rules and regulations associated with free lunch programs! I tried, though. I did make headway with my own children who are now very concerned with healthy diets for their children. And I applaud your involvement in trying to promote healthy eating...(I know I'll think of more to say after I hit Submit)
Posted by Ms. Linda T. Lockyer on Oct 8, 2011 12:58 AM