How To Navigate MyPlate & The New Dietary Guidelines for Americans

By now you know the food pyramid has gone the way of the pharaohs. In 2011, the USDA replaced it with a new food icon, MyPlate. Its appearance coincided with the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and MyPlate reflected the dietary changes recommended within the guidelines.

And those guidelines? Well, they’ve been revised again. Every 5 years, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — after a review of the latest, always evolving nutrition science — get an update. Which means, in 2015 the scientific evidence was again up for review, and new Dietary Guidelines were released in January 2016. Much is the same, but a few things have changed and some new things have been emphasized. Let’s take a look.

myplate_yellow_full plate

Added sugars and salt? The 2015 guidelines weren’t keen on ’em. They recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories. As for salt, adults and children 14 and older should limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day (that’s about 1 teaspoon of table salt). And kids younger than 14 should consume even less sodium. For comparison, the average American consumes about 3,400 mg of sodium every day, much of it hidden in processed foods. Read the labels to gauge sodium content.

Review of the nutrition evidence also showed what mothers everywhere probably already know: Teenage boys and men need to eat their veggies. The guidelines note that teenagers and adult males are eating too much protein and should reduce the amount of meat, poultry, and eggs they’re eating and replace those calories with healthy vegetables. There was, however, good news regarding eggs overall.The guidelines removed limits on dietary cholesterol — because the cholesterol we eat in foods like eggs does not seem to adversely affect blood cholesterol. So eggs are back on the plate.

Overall, though, the dietary advice remains pretty consistent with past recommendations: Eat your fruits and veggies, along with whole grains, and healthy vegetable oils (like olive oil and canola oil), while limiting saturated fat (found in butter, whole milk, some meats, and tropical oils). One key takeaway message: Develop healthy eating patterns now, because a lifelong pattern of healthy eating helps prevent obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Let’s scope out the plate, and check out some recipes.

myplate_yellow_fruits and veggies_half plate

Like the pyramid before it, the plate represents all the familiar food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy. But unlike the pyramid, the plate conveys a sense of proper proportion between them. At a glance, it’s easy to see that fruits and veggies should take up half of your plate.

Foods in the Vegetable Group

As you can see, vegetables take up the most room on the plate. The name of the game here is variety. Foods in this group include veggies of all shapes and sizes. We’re talking fresh, frozen, and canned; dried and dehydrated; whole or cut up; raw or cooked. Beans and peas also fall into the vegetables category. Tomatoes and eggplants, which are technically fruits but are most often treated and eaten as veggies, qualify as vegetables.

Foods in the Fruit Group

As with vegetables, the fruit group includes all kinds of fruit whether plucked from a tree, poured from a tin, or pulled from the freezer; it includes whole fruits, cut fruits, puréed fruits, dried fruits, and frozen fruits — with whole fruits preferred to juice, which does not include the fiber.

Foods in the Grains Group

Grains come in two categories: whole and refined. A grain is considered “whole” if it includes the kernel’s bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole-wheat flour, brown rice, oatmeal, and cracked wheat (bulgur) are examples of whole grains. The guidelines recommend that at least half of the foods in the grains group are whole grains.

Related: Why Whole Grains May Help You Live Longer (With Recipes)

Refined grains, on the other hand, have had the bran and germ milled right out of them, along with dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Of course, the refined grains you find in the supermarket (white flour, white rice, and white bread) have been enriched with these lost vitamins and iron, but the fiber, unfortunately, is gone for good.

Foods in the Protein Group

In the protein category, we find seafood, eggs, lean meats (including wild game), poultry, nuts, seeds, plus beans and peas (which pull double duty, as they also appear in the vegetable group). Naturally this meaty advice does not apply to vegetarians, who can meet their protein needs just fine by eating only non-animal proteins. Some critics faulted the final dietary guidelines for not specifically recommending cutting back on red meat and processed meats.


Foods in the Dairy Group

This is the smallest segment. It includes cheese, milk, yogurt, desserts made from milk (like ice cream and pudding), and soy milk. In this group, the USDA recommends fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese.

The companion website ChooseMyPlate includes additional advice to help families build better, healthier diets, including lists of foods to increase in your diet and foods to reduce.

Okay, so what do the nutrition experts think of these guidelines? Well, not surprisingly, there is some differerence of opinion amongst the experts.

The Harvard’s School of Public Health and editors at Harvard Health Publications, for example, designed a plate of their own with a few key modifications and tips for using the plate to eat healthy. You’ll notice, for example, that Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate takes away the glass of milk and replaces it with water. It also gives a special shout-out to healthy oils (like olive oil and canola oil). This plate also specifically calls out healthy proteins (like fish, beans, chicken, and nuts) and whole grains (like whole wheat, quinoa, brown rice, barley, and whole oats). Otherwise, the portion sizes for veggies and fruit are similar, taking up half the plate when combined.

If you think this all looks quite a lot like the recommendations you might find in articles about Clean Eating, the Mediterranean Diet, and the Nordic Diet — well, yes, you’re right. By and large, these diets all have a tremendous amount in common with the Dietary Guidelines. Each puts a few subtle tweaks on the common theme. For example, the Mediterranean Diet recommends a glass of wine or two with dinner and the Nordic Diet makes a case for locally foraged foods. But ultimately each puts the focus on plant-based foods, with lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats completing the picture.


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