Interpreting the New USDA Food Plate
Last Thursday, the USDA unveiled the new graphic tool to depict the recommended eating pattern for Healthy Americans, and it’s a significant departure from the carb-heavy, animal-protein laden pyramid whose emphasis on number of “servings” left most people feeling pretty confused.
While it’s not perfect, the new “My Plate” logo generally gets good reviews from nutritionists, and should hopefully be easier for most people to understand.
The USDA’s key messages are as follows:
- Half of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables (more veggies than fruits)
- A little more than 1/4 of your plate should be grains (and at least half of those grains should be whole grains)
- The remaining less than 1/4 of your plate should be a protein-rich food, which includes animal proteins like meat and fish as well as vegetable proteins such as beans, tofu, nuts and seeds.
- Dairy is off to the side of the plate, which the USDA intends to mean that each meal would ideally include the calcium-equivalent of one cup of low-fat or skim milk–to total 3 servings per day. According to the website, these equivalents would include 1 container of yogurt, an ounce and a half of hard cheese, a cup of soymilk, or 1.5 cups of ice cream (!!!).
Interpreting the USDA MyPlate
While the graphic seems simple enough to defy the need for interpretation, there are a few liberties I would take with these guidelines to make them more effective and realistic for my clients, many of whom are trying to lose weight, some of whom eat more than 3x/day, and several of whom are lactose intolerant.
First of all, I recommend that starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, potato-like root veggies, corn and green peas, get counted as a grain rather than a veggie. This is how we approach meal planning for people with Diabetes, but in reality, it’s a healthy way to eat for all of us. The nutritional profiles of these starchy veggies more closely resemble those of grains like rice, bread or pasta rather than of greens–namely, they’re substantially higher in calories and carbs. And given that potatoes are currently the most popular “vegetable” consumed in the U.S., it’s probably worth making a point to clarify that filling up to half one’s plate with them is not really the path to optimal health or weight management.
Second, with regards to dairy, the fact that the logo depicts it off to the side rather than on the plate suggests to me that dairy can be–but need not be–part of your daily diet. If you like it and can tolerate it, by all means enjoy it! But if you don’t like it or can’t tolerate it, you can still be healthy without dairy, so long as you make sure to eat other calcium-rich (or calcium-fortified) foods to meet your needs. While the USDA offers soymilk as the only non-dairy, calcium-rich option, there are plenty of others. Check out my previous post on Calcium for the Milk Averse for more ideas, and my posts on yogurts for the lactose-intolerant and generally lactose-challenged. And as if it needs to be said, using ice cream to meet your calcium needs is probably not advisable for anyone concerned about their weight.
Third, while the plate offers a useful visual guideline for lunch and dinner, it’s harder to interpret for breakfast. Furthermore, many of my early-waking clients have a small mid-morning snack in between breakfast and lunch that needs to be worked into the equation. A literal interpreation of the plate can be achieved by a veggie-heavy breakfast entree like my famous Shakshouka, coupled with a slice of whole grain bread, or perhaps an omelet or frittata loaded with veggies, accompanied by a slice of toast or a modest portion of sweet potato hash for the “grain”, and accompanied by a piece of fresh fruit or small fruit salad. Such large and labor-intensive meals, however, are more realistic for most people as weekend brunch options.
For weekdays, then, when breakfast tends to be more grain-focused (cereals, oatmeal), I suggest thinking of your overall morning eating routine in terms of the breakfast plate. That is: breakfast may be grain-heavy (a cup of oatmeal or a bowl of whole-grain cereal topped with banana or berries), but a mid-morning snack could be grain-free and more protein-focused, coupled with some more fruit or veggies. I often recommend fat-free, plain Greek Yogurt with fruit as a satisfying mid-morning snack; and since a typical container has more protein than 2 large eggs, I consider it a protein food. Other good morning snack options include an apple smeared with peanut butter/almond butter/sunflower seed butter or a hard boiled egg with some fruit salad or sliced melon. If you have a higher-protein breakfast cereal, like a Kashi Go Lean, for example, then some simple sliced veggies and hummus would be an appropriate mid-morning snack.
For the gluten-free crowd, remember that there are plenty of good, whole-grain gluten-free breakfast options. In the cooked cereal department, Bob’s Red Mill makes Certified gluten-free Oats (both rolled and steel cut), Brown Rice Farina, a multi-grain Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal, Whole Grain Millet Grits, and Whole Grain Creamy Buckwheat Cereal. For dry cereals, I’m partial to Barbara’s Bakery Multigrain Puffins or Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise. In a pinch, you could try a whole grain (brown) puffed rice cereal– now that Kellogg’s is offering offering a gluten-free, brown-rice version of Rice Krispies, you should have no trouble finding one in a supermarket near you! Note that puffed rice cereals, even when made from brown rice, are still quite low in fiber; if this is your cereal of choice, I might suggest topping it with 2 TBSP of ground flaxseeds to boost the fiber content and get a hefty dose of essential omega-3 fats to boot.
Lastly, if you’re seeking weight loss, the USDA plate proportions should still work well for you. Just be sure to use a smaller plate than usual!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.