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U.S. government changes food pyramid to a plate

The the U.S. Agriculture Department department's new healthy eating symbol: My Plate.

AP/AP

Good-bye, pyramid. Hello, plate.

The U.S. government's advice to Americans on what they should eat is undergoing a massive shakeup as top officials search for a better way to get across the healthy eating message.

That means the longstanding food pyramid, which used rainbow stripes to highlight important foods to eat throughout the day, has been scrapped in favour of asimple image of a plate divided into the major food groups people should consume most: fruits, vegetables, grains and protein. Dairy is featured as a beverage to the side of the plate.

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"What's more useful than a plate? What's more simple than a plate?" First Lady Michelle Obama said Thursday during the unveiling of the food plate design.

Many nutrition experts are praising the new design as a major improvement from the confusing and even misleading food pyramid, which critics said was too hard to understand and didn't emphasize the right foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Others believe the food plate is a marginal improvement to a deeply flawed food pyramid that will likely have minimal effects on what the public consumes..

"I was underwhelmed by the food icon. I don't think it's going to make any impact whatsoever on the way people eat," said Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa and outspoken advocate on nutrition-related issues. "To be fair, I can't imagine that an icon would ever be able to do that."Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator of the Canadian branch of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, agreed the food plate has many flaws. For instance, it doesn't recommend that people should control how many calories they consume in a day. It also fails to emphasize that people should eat foods that are low in sodium, a major oversight, he said.

But at the same time, while not perfect, the plate highlights serious problems with the Canadian government's guide to healthy eating, he said.

"I think it's certainly a much better tool … than Canada's Food Guide," said Mr.Jeffery. "It almost seemed like Health Canada went out of its way to design the Food Guide in a way that minimized its use value in terms of illustrating what the healthful diet looks like."

Canada's Food Guide, which was last revised in 2007, has long been criticized as unclear, too complex and for failing to properly emphasize healthy eating habits.

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When the 2007 version was unveiled, experts praised Health Canada's emphasis on foods low in fat, sugar and sodium. Similarly, they applauded the Food Guide's advice to include healthy, unsaturated fats in the diet and for people over age 50 to take vitamin D supplements.

But the guide also recommends that half of the grains Canadians consume daily be whole grains, something that baffled nutrition experts who note there are few nutritional benefits to eating white bread or other refined grain products. The guide also emphasizes cheese as a healthy dairy product (like milk), despite the fact it is typically high in saturated fat. Critics also complained the guide seemed to overemphasize consumption of red meat and dairy products.

In the U.S., the former food pyramid faced many of the same criticisms. But the new food plate offers a shift toward simplicity and a clear healthy eating message, a drastic departure from typically confusing food guides.

For instance, half of the plate is divided into fruits and vegetables, indicating they should make up the bulk of a person's diet. Grains and protein make up the other half, with dairy to the side in the shape of a milk glass.

Dr. Freedhoff also applauded the fact the plate doesn't suggest minimum amounts of food servings people should eat a day. Few people understand the concept of servings and suggesting minimum amounts could promote overeating or a skewed diet, critics say. For instance, Canada's Food Guide says adult females age 19 to 50 should eat two servings of meat and alternatives, such as tofu or eggs, a day, although many people don't know the size of one serving of meat.

Despite the fact he believes the food plate will have a limited impact on the diet of Americans, Dr. Freedhoff said Canada should update its food guide every year, as they do in the U.S.

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The last time Canada's Food Guide was revised before 2007 was 1992.

"The fact that we don't do that, regardless of the flaws or the merits of the food guide, is a huge disservice to Canada and again, I would describe it as an affront to evidence-based nutrition," Dr. Freedhoff said.

Major highlights of the new food plate:

Simple design: Instead of a multi-coloured pyramid, the U.S. is now using a simple image of a plate to show Americans what the makeup of their diet should be.

No minimum amounts: Unlike many food guides, including the one used by Canada, the new food plate model doesn't suggest people eat a "minimum amount" of servings, which critics suggest leads to confusion because few consumers understand what constitutes a serving. In Canada, the food guide recommends how many servings of various foods people should eat a day, but critics argue few take the time to measure portions to get the right serving size.

Protein, not meat: The food plate suggests people consume protein every day, but does not make mention of meat products. It's an important distinction because many food guides have been criticized for recommending the consumption of red meat, for instance, which is tied to potential health risks.

Move over, dairy: Although dairy is still included in the new design, it is featured off to the side as the image of a beverage. Some experts praised this move, saying it may emphasize consumption of low-fat milk over, say, cheese. Yet, others suggest dairy shouldn't have been included as a food group at all

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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