The USDA's updated food guideline visual, released on June 2, 2011.
The USDA's updated food guideline visual, released on June 2, 2011.

A picture is worth a 1,000 words, and USDA is hoping that its new food icon—MyPlate-- will be easier for Americans to comprehend and use than its earlier food pyramids.

Officially released on Thursday, the icon is part of a comprehensive nutrition communication initiative from USDA and the Obama Administration to provide consumers with easy-to-understand recommendations, a new website with expanded information, as well as other tools and resources.

The effort started with the 2010 White House Child Obesity Task Force, which called for simple, actionable advice to equip consumers with information to help them make healthy food choices. The MyPlate icon is one of the outcomes-- an actual dinner plate divided up into portions showing consumers what their meal should look like when they sit down to eat. For example, fruit and vegetables should make up half of the plate, with grains and proteins each making up one-quarter. Milk and yogurt is represented by a glass of milk set off to the side, to round out a “balanced meal.”

“The amount of food from the food groups people should eat depends on age, sex, and level of physical activity,” says Adria Sheil-Brown, registered dietician and National Pork Board’s manager of nutrition communications and research. Daily recommended amounts can be found in charts on www.choosemyplate.gov according to each food group. 

Specific to protein, the recommended amounts has not changed. “USDA’s Dietary Guidelines still recommends consuming 5.5 ounce equivalents of protein per day for healthy adults.  Many lean cuts of pork fit easily into this recommendation,” Sheil-Brown points out. 

MyPlate will replace USDA’s food pyramid efforts, first developed in 1992, as the government's primary food group symbol. The last version, created in 2005, was known as MyPyramid. Like many things related to making food choices, many consumers found the six-rainbow striped triangle with a stair-step edge and a running stick figure to illustrate exercise as hard to interpret.

"The pyramid can be confusing and complex to some, and in some cases too simplistic for others," says Robert Post, deputy director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

First Lady Michele Obama also has ratcheted up the exercise message more intensely with the “Let’s Move” campaign, and its particular emphasis on children.

The new dinner plate based food guide should be more relatable. “It will be an easy-to-understand visual cue to help consumers adopt healthy eating habits consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” USDA’s website outlined. “MyPyramid will remain available to interested health professionals and nutrition educators in a special section of the new website.”

Other advice for Americans that accompanied USDA’s rollout included:

Balance calories:

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions

Food to increase:

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains
  •  Switch to fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk

Food to reduce:

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread and frozen meals, and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

“The announcement is an important step in improving the health of Americans, and the National Pork Board appreciates the overall goals of the Dietary Guidelines to reduce obesity, encourage the consumption of healthful meals and increase physical activity,” the National Pork Board said in a statement. NPB is a Nutrition Communications Network partner of USDA.

“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,” Sheil-Brown says. “Pork offers a familiar, affordable and delicious way to meet the dietary recommendations. With the recently announced lower USDA cooking temperature for pork, it is easier than ever to prepare lean pork without overcooking.” 

NPB points out that pork provides vital nutrients such as heme iron and vitamin B12, which many Americans lack. Research also shows that eating lean meats such as pork can support weight loss and weight management by reducing hunger sensations, increasing feelings of fullness and preserving lean muscle mass, Sheil-Brown says. NPB will help educate Americans on choosing, preparing and eating healthier food options, including consuming lean proteins such as pork as a cornerstone of the plate, officials say.

“This new effort is one easy step in the right direction of fighting the obesity epidemic plaguing our nation today,” Sheil-Brown adds. “Consumers can feel good about the lean pork they are purchasing and consuming knowing it is part of a well-balanced diet.”