Dietary Guideline Graphics: From the Food Pyramid to My Plate, Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, and PCRM’s Power Plate

In last week’s New England Journal of Medicine, Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard, and David Ludwig, founding director of the childhood obesity program at Children’s Hospital, published a commentary on the latest dietary guidelines. They echo much of what I’ve featured in my three-week video series on the subject.

Their first recommendation to reform the process is to “Move primary responsibility for guideline development to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or IOM [National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine], to avoid conflicts of interest at the USDA arising from its institutional mission to promote commodities.” I explore this twin USDA mandate to both promote agribusiness and protect our nation’s health in my video USDA Conflicts of Interest. I then profile the dietary guidelines of Greece, a country that has taken this recommendation to heart, in It’s All Greek To The USDA.  The success story in Finland, highlighted in From Dairies to Berries, shows that dietary guidelines based on science rather than corporate influence could save millions of lives.

Drs. Willet and Ludwig also recommend, “Write guidelines that explicitly state which foods should be consumed less by Americans to reduce risk for chronic disease.” When the federal guidelines issue “eat-more” recommendations, the messaging is clear—for example, “Increase vegetable and fruit intake.” But when it comes to “eat-less” messaging, recommendations resort to speaking in cryptic biochemical components, such as “Reduce intake of solid fats (major sources of saturated and trans fatty acids).” In Dietary guidelines: Just Say No I crack the code to translate what that means in terms of actual foods to avoid. Making the message clearer, explain the two prominent Harvard docs, would have “offended powerful industries.”

In Advisory Committee Conflicts of Interest I document how the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committee has been made of up individuals funded by McDonald’s, Coca Cola, the Sugar Association, the American Meat Institute, candy bar companies, and the egg and dairy boards. It is no wonder the dietary guidelines don’t explicitly say to avoid unhealthy foods. In Science Versus Corporate Interests I feature an Arlo and Janis cartoon that I think best sums up the situation.

In Dietary guidelines: The First 25 Years I show how the dietary guidelines have gotten progressively weaker even as Americans have gotten sicker. The New Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a definite improvement, though. From the New England Journal commentary: “The guidelines appropriately emphasize eating more vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, and nuts and highlight healthful plant-based eating patterns, including vegetarian and vegan diets.” In Plant Protein Preferable a recent review of Dr. Willet’s is showcased, explaining the emphasis on plant rather than animal sources of protein.

Today’s video-of-the-day Progressing from Pyramid to Plate notes the significant improvement represented by MyPlate, the USDA’s new graphic representation of the guidelines, over the previous Food Guide Pyramid. “Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture Pyramids,” said Dr. Willett, “MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.” Harvard’s “Healthy Eating Plate” improves on the USDA version by specifying whole grains, replacing the glass of “dairy” with a glass of water, and instructing to “Get most or all of your protein from beans, nuts and seeds, or tofu.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s “Power Plate” makes this even more explicit. As Harvard’s healthy eating guide concludes, “Eating a plant-based diet is healthiest.”

Tomorrow I conclude the series with Pushback From The Sugar, Salt, and Meat Industries.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

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