Last week, the USDA announced that the food pyramid, which many of us grew up with in the form of classroom posters, text book illustrations and as a heuristic for what it means to eat a healthy diet, would be no more. In its place: MyPlate, a new visual that reflects a revised philosophy on the American diet (or at least catches up with the one professed by today's nutritionists). In an effort to make the visual more actionable than esoteric, it's now taken the shape of a plate (as the name suggests), and clearly shows that vegetables and fruit take up half the real estate of a healthy saucer. Dairy is shown as a side, with a small circle just large enough to fit a glass of low-fat or fat-free milk. And the color coded "slices" on the plate (which call to mind, unfortunately, pie slices!) allude to appropriate portion sizes for all categories.
But will this change matter to the eating habits of kids, tweens and teens? First, it's important to note that no one on any side of the debate as (at least so far) suggested that graphics are the solution to childhood obesity. Michelle Obama's efforts related to health, which may have catalyzed the long-time intentions of nutritionists and the USDA to change the ailing pyramid into action, include an active lifestyle along with smart eating. Most nutritionists agree that education is a critical pillar in promoting healthy eating, but this exists alongside efforts to make healthy food less expensive and more accessible to people everywhere. And, of course, no one associated with this effort is naive enough to believe that just telling people how to eat healthy will change deep-seeded behaviors and relationships related to eating. It might seem easy enough to change the food we put into our mouths, but eating seems to relate to our heads and hearts as much as our stomachs.
More importantly, will this dinner plate change the minds of youth or their parent when it comes to eating? Will it make mealtime decisions easier or just as frustrating as before? It may be too soon to tell. On one hand, any visual that bring theory down to practice seem to be moving in the right direction. But according to the USDA website, MyPlate will include special considerations for key groups (women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people engaged in a medically supervised weight loss program, and kids and preschoolers). The kids section and visual has not yet been updated. The massive PR campaign promised to promote the changes in the recommended diet has not yet launched, but the new visual has gotten some buzz. And parents or curious kids who have heard about it might be disappointed to find that their food fate has not yet been determined, even though they have been invoked as the primary reason for re-thinking how we talk about healthy eating.
Assuming that the visual might be pretty close to MyPlate's shape and form, we see a few outages...First, most parents know that they need to get more fruit and veggies on their kids' plates. We have yet to meet a parent who tells us a really "wrong" answer when it comes to the importance of these foundational ingredients to their children's eating repertoire. It's not a problem with the theory, it's the execution that presents a challenge. Second, the dinner plate is hardly the source of greatest contention when it comes to kids' eating. It's the lunch bag/box, the after school snack and the on-the-go options that make sticking to their principles harder than it would seem. And finally, it's not about the big picture - as useful as that big picture might be - as much as it's about the details. Do fruit juices with veggies included work? is a PB and J sandwich still a good lunch box staple? Is there such a thing as a better-for-you fruit snack? And how about the perennial debate: does chocolate milk work if white milk doesn't fly in the home? And what about a visual that shows how mom can stock her backseat with healthy snacks - and an indication of how to count those snacks in the daily diet of their kids? Anyone? Parents might want to make these decisions in their own home, and might resent prescriptives that feel too black and white. But they also might welcome some sound advice that takes into consideration their real-life knowledge gaps and their kid cooking challenges.
To end on a positive note, the introduction of a new tool will certainly raise some debate. It will put children's health and nutrition back at the center of public dialogue. And in schools, teachers will be able to point to a more relevant and accurate, if not perfect, tool to tell children about the basics of nutrition. And companies and organizations will, hopefully, be inspired to innovate (although many have already been working on ways to make getting your veggies and fruits more conveniently and consistently).