Saturday, June 4, 2011

Time to Clear My Plate. Before You Get Triggered by My Plate, Read This.

Oh, Michelle, I so appreciate your honest and passionate concern for improving the health of our nation, particularly our kids. Really I do! But quite frankly, the subtle messages conveyed through the new USDA My Plate set us way back in our progress.
That’s not to say that I find nothing favorable about it. I do like the bright colors (they make me feel like a kid again), and the concept of half the plate as fruits and vegetables is truly a helpful, and reasonable teaching visual. And, a message I can support. But here’s where we part.

Where are the fats?

Ok, I realize that in the written food group description fats get mentioned, but not encouraged. And let’s face it—it’s the visual image that makes the biggest impact. And in that regard, fats are absent. Yes, in spite of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans summarizing the enormous body of research and declaring that increasing (unsaturated) fats should be a goal, comprising up to 30% of all our calories, this message is lost in My Plate.

In fact, in the description accompanying the image, it even sheds a negative light, saying “oils are not a food group”. And by oils they really mean fats, because avocado, for instance is not oil. Funny, in past pyramids, such as 2005, fats were a distinct part of the pyramid and were scattered around as a component of the other food groups. And if fats are not a food group, why is protein? If I remember my basic nutrition way back the three macronutritent groups making up all foods are protein, fats and carbohydrate. Yet My Plate places the nutrient protein on the plate, a component of foods, as if it’s a food, yet states that fats have no place? I don’t get it.

Where’s my favorite food group?

But perhaps the biggest problem I have is the omission of those “empty calorie” villains, the “sweets”. Past health messages from the American Dietetics Association and the recent aforementioned Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 instructs us to “find balance between food and physical activity.” At no point do they suggest we should eliminate sweets to prevent obesity.

And speaking of those additional calories, why make such an overreaching statement like “Enjoy your food, but eat less”? Should I suggest this to my normal weight sons? To the healthy growing kids I see? To the many I work with struggling with trusting their hunger, many of whom are working hard to increase their calories by appropriately eating more? Should I be eating less as I’m training for a biking event this month? Such an unnecessary and detrimental generalization! Would it take an eating disordered child for Michelle to be more sensitive to such absurd health recommendations?

This dietitian endorses a health-promoting message to include junk food!

Here’s the scoop. Black and white messages about good foods to eat and bad foods to avoid are damaging. They contribute to society being misinformed about weight management, and about eating in a healthy, balanced and pleasurable way. In life kids and adults are going to eat cupcakes and chocolate and ice cream in all flavors. The problem won’t be that we’re eating these foods. It’s that we view them as bad, feel guilty, and end up overeating them, because we have been convinced that we have done wrong by consuming them—in any amount. Rigid rules and clear omissions teach us nothing. They reinforce the wrong messages. It’s time to get with the times.

Why the beef about dairy?

And to the critics of inclusion of a dairy serving, like Walter Willet at Harvard (who says there’s no evidence to support including a dairy requirement), I’d like to ask you this—are you thinking we’re going to meet our requirement for calcium and Vitamin D from sardines, canned salmon, almonds and broccoli? I don’t think so. Perhaps the USDA could have done better by broadening that category to say “milk and fortified soy milk”; no other non-dairy alternative provides as much protein as well as calcium and Vit D. Yes, there is evidence that we need an adequate intake of these two nutrients, and practical, economical, acceptable sources are few and far between outside of dairy products.

As for the interactive resources, I would love to share my thoughts. But after signing in, the program failed to work when I tried to explore the physical activity section.

Time to go eat. 

My plate will include some homemade waffles this morning, fruit, yogurt, and real Vermont, full sugar maple syrup. And I just might decide to include a piece of pastry for my afternoon snack. And in spite of what My Plate urges, I have no intentions of reducing my portions from their usual level!

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your sweets today.


  1. I am so glad you wrote this. As soon as I read the new guidelines I was instantly triggered by "eat less". As someone recovering from anorexia I still have a hard time eating until I am satisfied and honoring hunger. I would rather be hungry than full. I sometimes think this "war on obesity" is really hurting all of us who are struggling to trust our bodies and normalize food again. I am now a healthy BMI (low end), but I still have yet to regain my period after 16months. My RD would like me to gain at least 5lbs more, but it makes it really hard to gain/eat more when the message of this new My Plate seems to be to eat less. Those of us with disordered eating read it as "eat as little as possible".

  2. There's an entire section on figuring out whether you should count legumes as protein OR vegetable based on the other items on your plate (apparently foods have different nutrients depending on what name you call them...) and you're right, it's weird that they don't consider fats a food group (not oils, fats. FAT is the macronutrient and it IS essential). I have some different struggles than an anorexic, since my more recent history is nonpurging bulimia that turned into just disordered overeating, but I also find this website disturbing and unhelpful.

  3. My first thought was "Where are the fats?" I'm also a recovering anorexic and still struggle to add fats into my diet (it's actually my goal this week!) -- so my mind immediately thought, "I don't have to eat fats! Haha! Take that dietitian!"
    That obviously is not a healthy thought and I'm not going to run with it, but I agree with you and your commenters that this new "myplate" could trigger a lot of folks with disordered eating patterns.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. THANK YOU, LORI! It's messages like those in My Plate that fuel the obsessive, rule-abiding thinking that I am trying so hard to get rid of. It's messages and images like those that stick hard to my brain, and they turn into flashing red lights whenever I try to muster up the courage to drizzle olive oil my roasted vegetables.

    I was at my mom's yesterday and flipped through her new issue of Cooking Light. The feeling that I got from most of the articles is that less is more. "Go for carrot sticks instead of tortilla chips to cut out some fat" and "Replace sugar in recipes with Splenda to cut out empty calories". My head was about to explode with anger. Why does there have to be a moral value to food? Why can't the media just leave it alone?

    My point: Thank you. The message from YOU is going to be the one that sticks in my brain when I put maple syrup on waffles. A green light.


  5. I'm sorry to add another comment, but I just went the USDA My Plate site, and the first thing I read on the home page was.

    "Enjoy your food, but eat less."

    Really?! The USDA would prefer that I eat less? Outrageous.


  6. Thank you for this!! Thank you for speaking truth!! I am also a recovering anorexic, so, obviously hearing this message from you today is WAY more helpful than hearing My Plate's message. But even if I wasn't a recovering anorexic, I think the My Plate site would be harmful! I have friends who don't have eating disorders... in fact, they are very competent eaters who self regulate around food and all goes well.... they shouldn't be told to "Eat less." If they were told that, they might become hyper aware of their foods, they might feel more guilty than they would have, and their mind would get in the way of their body's natural ability to feed itself! How does something like My Plate get out there? There's got to be a group of people who approve it? Is NO ONE sensitive in that group?

  7. Thank you all for your moving comments! I'm so glad that reading this post helped, even a bit, to counter the crazy messages you are subject to.

    On another note, I emailed Michelle Obama and the USDA folks with the link. Let's see if they respond.

    The waffles by the way, were delicious, although I would have preferred some whipped cream to the yogurt, but we were all out : O

  8. I read the "my plate" guidelines and immediately went into a panic thinking that my dietitian has been lying to me over this last year. I am working to recover from an eating disorder, and seeing this did not help me at all. I tend to have issues with trust, and this gave me a great reason to second guess my dietitian. Thankfully, I have a strong enough relationship with her that I can tell her all this and get her response.
    It was also really great for me to read your take on it, Lori. It kind of solidifies what my RD was saying.

    In a society that is in a "war against obesity", I find it incredibly difficult to continue to try to INCREASE my intake. Sometimes I just get so frustrated by all of this.

    Thanks for writing this!

    Also - I am not able to comment under my usual google/blogger name: "yogini" ... weird.

  9. I think one of the biggest drawbacks to this plate idea (apart from the ones you've mentioned) is the lack of visual examples showing variety. I wonder if it gives people the idea that you have to choose green vegetables. Or that just peas every night is okay. But I suppose it's a case of trying to provide the simplest model to reach the widest audience.

    Obviously lets not even go there on the *everyone* should eat less thing!!

    We will now have to wait and see what the new Aussie one looks like.

  10. Yeah I agree that labeling foods as good and bad is doing more harm than good. In my belief, nothing should be eliminated completely. We should all be able to enjoy junk food. I think part of the problem is that we don't know when we've actually had enough. Many people sit down to eat a meal and they tend to eat until they are stuffed. By then, they have went beyond just stopping hunger. Or they eat out of boredom or triggered by emotions. Most people also eat when they aren't actually hungry yet. They confuse sudden cravings for real hunger and they don't know when to stop when their bodies have had enough. The mind tricks them into thinking "I'm only satisfied when I feel like I have to undo my bottons." It's so disordered.

  11. @Ashley You are so right! That's why I have tried throughout this blog to demonstrate how to (re)learn how to eat, with a mindful focus, and letting go of rules.

    In many ways it's like breastfeeding. One would thing that it's so intuitive, breastfeeding your newborn. But it's anything but. People take classes to learn to breast feed. there a breastfeeding consultants and books. And people use them for good reason!
    Yes, eating, and feeding, can be counterintuitive!

  12. Ugh! This is so misguided. The "enjoy your food but eat less" reminds me of the old Jewish folk tale about the miser and his horse. Every day the miser fed his horse a little less and a little less, until one day the horse keeled over and died. And the miser said, "Just when I had him trained to eat nothing at all!"

    I so badly want to like Michelle Obama. She's a well-intentioned person. But she is making an arguably bad situation far, far worse.

  13. This statement speaks to the obesity epidemic which is indeed a horrendous situation here in Canada and certainly in the US. That the current generation of Canadian children ( and American for sure) is expected to have a shorter lifespan than the generation before it is just terrible. This is what the new food guide is trying to address. That said, that first statement"enjoy your food but eat less" is just plain dumb. For the very reasons many of the commentators above explain. And it is the very first tip! What were the"EXPERTS" thinking! I hope that when Health Canada finally(hurry up!) revises our current flawed guide it will " think before it speaks"!

  14. If these were 'Guidelines for Overeating Americans', I would understand. But these are supposed to be for the general public. and I would add, that it is also a false assumption that because someone is overweight (especially as determined by BMI) that they need to eat less!

  15. Well, with over 65% of the American population overweight or obese, I think “Enjoy your food but eat less” should be a giant, glaring “STOP OVEREATING.” Eat when you are hungry; stop when you are full. Simple.

  16. Roxanne, now that's a good tip. They had their chance to word this better, and they missed it.

  17. I'm new to your blog, but really enjoying it. Personally, I agree with the MyPlate approach. Obesity is an epidemic. No one really understands proper food portions anymore and their certainly not teaching their kids. This seems to be a simple way to get across the most important information. I do agree with you that the omission of "Fats" is glaring. They could have had a cute little yellow circle, like a pad of butter, sitting on top of the veggies.