Stories about: USDA

Children’s hosts expert panel to discuss USDA dietary recommendations

This was my breakfast last Friday.

As a black coffee and dry toast kind of guy, I have to admit I was skeptical when I first laid eyes on the plate. Roasted red peppers, kale sautéed in garlic and olive oil, black beans, cheese and smoked salmon isn’t exactly my traditional 8 AM fare.

But after a few bites I was sold; at some point it seems my tastes had changed without me knowing, which I was about to learn was a very good thing.

“When it comes to food, it’s OK to break the rules,” said award winning chef and famed restaurateur Jody Adams, as she addressed a packed house of nutritionists, medical professionals and community leaders who gathered at Children’s Hospital Boston to discuss the USDA’s current dietary guidelines and new MyPlate icon.

“In fact, if we are going to be successful in our mission to reduce and prevent childhood obesity in this country, more than a few rules are going to have to be broken. We need to change the way we think about a lot of foods,” she said.

Adams, along with Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and senior policy advisory for Healthy Food Initiatives at the White House,  spoke Friday morning at Step Up to the Plate, a panel discussion hosted by the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital. In addition to Kass and Adams, the panel included Boston Public Health Commission Director Barbara Ferrer PhD, MPH, MEd , Cara Ebbeling, PhD, Associate Director of Research and Training at the Center and Eric Rimm, ScD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard; each bringing a unique vision about how the USDA’s dietary guidelines can be utilized to help American kids eat and live better.

As a recognized leader in the fight against childhood obesity, Center director David Ludwig, MD, PhD, was the esteemed host of the event, but the real star of the show was MyPlate, the color-coded icon that recently replaced the Food Pyramid as the government’s visual representation of a balanced diet.

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USDA steps up to the plate

As of Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has officially retired the food pyramid, replacing it with an easy-to-read, plate shaped icon. “MyPlate” is divided into four sections, indicating what types of food (and how much of them) should occupy a person’s plate at each meal. Its designers are hopeful that the simple, meal-by-meal visual guide will be easier for Americans to understand than the pyramid, which has been called both confusing and misleading. (For example, bacon and cold cuts are technically meat products, which could place them in the same category as healthier options like fish, chicken or beans.)

The USDA is counting on the MyPlate to eliminate a lot of the confusion left in the pyramid’s wake, but will it work? To get the skinny on the pro’s and con’s of the new plate icon, we spoke with David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the the Boston Children’s/New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.

Many experts say the old food pyramid is too difficult to understand, possibly even misleading (i.e. some incarnations seemed to imply that ALL fats are bad for you). Now that it’s gone, what are you’re thoughts on the pyramid?

The initial Food Guide Pyramid, released in 1992, gave clear advice to avoid all fats and load up on starch. The advice was wrong, but at least it was specific. Then, in 2005 it was updated to the

2005's MyPyramid may have been an improvement from earlier food pyramids, but not by much

MyPyramid model, but that was a marvel of miscommunication, with colored bands leading to a mixture of foods lying around at the bottom. Looking at MyPyramid, one wonders if an earthquake hit the first pyramid, and knocked all the nicely arrayed food to the ground.  Although it may seem funny, the confusion and misunderstanding arising from these icons has negatively impacted public health.  Without specific, scientifically informed guidance, products like the “low fat Twinkie” have been marketed as a health food, when in reality they aren’t much different from a bowl of sugar.  Hopefully, with release of the new Plate icon, the Pyramids will remain permanently in Egypt.

In what way is MyPlate a step-up from the pyramid?

The new icon is a huge improvement, with clear, unambiguous and simple advice. The most notable change is the recommendation to cover half the plate with vegetables and fruits, dietary categories that are greatly underconsumed by all Americans, especially children. In addition, portion size of starchy foods like grains is, by implication, smaller now, limited to a quarter of the plate. (No, the 16 oz portion of pasta is no longer compliant).

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