5 Things to Know About the New Nutritional Guidelines

Jun 2, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The latest nutritional guidelines, released today by the Obama Administration, have generated a lot of buzz. We've trimmed the fat for a quick read of need-to-know details. Here, 5 things to get you informed fast.

(Image from Choosemyplate.gov)

1. The new guideilnes are rounded out.

It makes so much sense, it's a wonder it didn't happen earlier—the shape used to describe our daily food intake has finally taken the form of our daily eating utensil: a plate.

Divided into a quartet of similarly sized slices, MyPlate emphasizes four key food groups: vegetables, proteins, grains, and fruit, with a glass on the side labeled 'dairy,'—presumably milk, yogurt, or cottage cheese.

The greatest difference between the pyramid of yesteryear and today's new design is that produce dominates nearly half the plate. Additionally, the plate's accompanying government website, ChooseMyPlate.gov, encourages portion control, balanced calories, less sodium, and making the switch to skim milk and more whole grains. 

"I'm hoping this is a signal that [U.S. Department of Agriculture] will be aligning agricultural policy with these new recommendations and start promoting fruit and vegetable production," New York University Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health Professor Marion Nestle told USA Today.

2. Everyone wants a piece of the pie

With the release of the White House's new standards, organizations and boards have come out of the woodwork to stake their claims in daily nutrition. "Grains comprise a large portion, signaling that USDA recognizes the importance of grains such as enriched white rice and whole grain brown rice in the diet," quipped the USA Rice Federation's press release.

"Understanding that protein is a core element of an overall healthy plate, and that cuts of lean, fresh pork can readily be paired with fruits, vegetables and whole grains is an actionable message for consumers," reads the National Pork Board's press statement.

"As Americans aim to make every meal a healthy meal soyfoods can play a part in any healthy, well-balanced diet.  They nourish the body with high quality protein that is low in saturated fat, full of nutrients, and cholesterol-free.  Soyfoods are versatile and can be incorporated into your plate as a protein, vegetable and dairy," Soy Foods Association of North America chimed in.

As the White House encourages slimming down, food industry shareholders are sure to beef up their efforts.

3. No one wants to say 'no red meat'

Though the White House is enthusiastically emphasizing lean white meat protein, the administration stops short of advising Americans to cut out red meat.

"The reality is, USDA will probably never come out and tell Americans to stop eating high fat, calorie-dense meat," NPR's April Fulton explains. "That's because USDA is not just a regulatory agency—it also promotes the country's vast livestock industry, from cattle to chicken."

That observation highlights the complicated role that the government plays: advising healthier eating while continuing to subsidize five crops that are incongruous with their messaging: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.

The White House promotes a diet rich in produce, but subsidizes the opposite. (An infographic from kitchengardens.org)

4. Experts are giving it the stamp of approval

Though many agree that the new plate design isn't vastly different from the pyramid, a few prominate figures in health and nutrition fields have affirmed that it is definitely an improvement.

Marion Nestle told USA Today that the new MyPlate design "is a huge step forward. I love it that the messages begin with—enjoy your food."

Dr. Tom Brenna, professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, is happy with the guidelines' increased emphasis on seafood as a protein staple. "More seafood means better development of eyes, better development of the brain, and probably benefits for mom," Brenna tells NPR.

John Stanton, who heads the food marketing department at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, playfully praised the simplicity of the new shape: "I'm surprised they didn't go to the dodecahedron as their next alternative," he told NPR.

5. Sugars and oils are out—but you can still have your cookies.

Though the new design is definitely geared toward healthier eating (and Michelle Obama has made getting the nation fit her personal mission), Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack insists it's not meant to spoil anyone's sweet tooth.

"We are not telling people what to eat, we are giving them a guide," he said. "We're not suggesting they should not have a cookie or dessert, that's not what it's about."

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