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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Out With the Old Pyramid and In With the New Food Plate

I seldom have to second guess myself or struggle to take a position on something. That said, I've written and rewritten this post three times over the course of the last four days because I'm trying to figure out what's wrong with me. Am I the only food writer in the world who is not rapturous over the USDA's newest dietary icon?

Quick quiz: what's the first thing you associate with a pyramid? Egypt, right? Pharaohs, camels, sand, etc. Now, what do you associate with a plate? Ding, ding ding! You've got it! Food!

Somebody in Washington did some cogitating and the decades-old “food pyramid” employed by the USDA to outline and depict its dietary recommendations is going bye-bye, replaced by a “simpler” and “more symbolic” plate. Okay, so maybe the “plate” looks suspiciously like a pie chart, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Anything's better than the universally ridiculed and reviled “pyramid.” Or is it?

I'm trying to like the new plate, I truly am. But while my colleagues are all composing symphonies in praise of the fabulous innovation, I keep catching glimpses of the man behind the curtain.

Now, the government has been in the “dietary recommendation” business for a long time, issuing its first edict back in 1894, long before many of the current foundations of nutrition were even known. (No vitamins back in those days.) They came up with the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) around 1941. The “Basic Four Food Groups” soon followed. Conceived in the 1950s, the “Basic Four” consisted of 1) meats, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, eggs, and nuts; 2) dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt; 3) grains, such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn; 4) fruits and vegetables. A fifth “basic” group -- fats, sweets and alcoholic beverages – was added in the '70s. But now that the “Basic Four” (or Five) was established, the problem became one of proportions. How much of what group was one supposed to consume? A nifty graphic representation of some kind was called for and so came about the first “Food Pyramid.”

Officially called the “Improved American Food Guide Pyramid,” it was introduced in 1992, although the concept had been kicked around and tweaked since the late '70s. The pyramid depicted a wide base of bread, cereal, rice and pasta (6 to 11 servings) followed by a divided layer of fruits (2 to 4 servings) and vegetables (3 to 5 servings). Next came the bifurcated level for meats (2 to 3 servings) and dairy (2 to 3 servings). Capping the pyramid was the “fats, oils, and sweets” group, with the recommendation “use sparingly.”

The pyramid was criticized immediately by the meat and dairy industries, both of which accused the government of attempting to marginalize their products. Nutritionists of every calling took potshots at everything from the pyramid's indiscriminate lumping of fats together regardless of nutritional value to the similar wholesale inclusion of all proteins as being equal. The lactose-intolerant objected to the high priority assigned to dairy products, the vegetarians howled about the preponderance of meat and dairy, and everybody complained about the overall lack of clarity. For instance, the 2 to 3 servings from the meat group was intended as a maximum recommendation, while the 2 to 4 fruit servings was supposed to be a minimum, information not really made clear by the pyramid.

The whole structure was turned on its ear – literally – in 2005 and relabeled “MyPyramid: Steps To a Healthier You.” Unfortunately, the graphic was even wackier than the original. Gone were the horizontally stacked building blocks, replaced by brightly colored vertical stripes theoretically depicting the proper proportions of each food group. But while it made for an eye-appealing picture to put on cereal boxes and such, it was deemed clumsy and vague in its purpose. And the idea that throwing a guy walking up a flight of stairs set into the side of the thing was supposed to indicate the addition of exercise to diet was whimsical at best.

But now it's out with the Pyramid and in with the Plate. “My Plate,” to be exact, and you can check it out for yourself at www.choosemyplate.gov.

The new icon is divided into four sections representing protein, grain, fruits, and vegetables. For some reason, dairy products get their own plate. Go figure. There's also a fork to the left of the plate, indicating at least that somebody at the USDA knows how to set a proper table.

Like the last version of the pyramid, there are lots of bright colors. But although First Lady Michelle Obama calls the new symbol “a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating,” it doesn't seem that the plate is any better at outlining a healthy diet than was the pyramid.

At first glance it's pretty obvious that the green section representing vegetables is the largest. The brown(ish) slice depicting grains is slightly smaller but still larger than the red and sort of purple sections that show fruits and proteins, respectively. And there's dairy, a little blue plate over on the right. If you look at it the way the government wants you to see it, you'll realize that the fruit and vegetable sections, although unequal in size in and of themselves, comprise the entire left half of the plate, indicating – in the USDA's vision – that fruits and vegetables should make up half of your daily diet. Grains and proteins – the right side of the plate – should be the other half, with more grains that proteins because the larger grain section is on top of the smaller protein section. And then there's dairy, a little unexplained blue plate over on the right. No more fats, sweets, and alcohol apparently. Not even a napkin ring for them. The little guy climbing the stairs is gone, too, so it seems exercise is no longer a part of the picture.

There are no suggested servings – nothing to tell you how much of this or how little of that to consume. No percentages, no portion sizes, nothing advising you of what substances to limit or avoid – no real information at all. Just another pretty, colorful picture.

You likely don't want to know how many of your tax dollars went into this redesign boondoggle, but rest assured, the “experts” say that the plate will help people make better food choices because many people found the pyramid to be too complicated. Let's see...a wide base for grains with a smaller layer divided between fruits and vegetables, then a smaller layer divided between meats and dairy, and finally a tiny little top layer for fats and sweets. My goodness, yes. It's easy to see how that could confuse somebody. It's much simpler to say that half of your diet should come from two food groups and half from the other two, because, mathematically speaking, two halves make a whole, right? Except for that little portion of dairy out there in right field that doesn't seem to belong anywhere and we just won't talk about fats and sweets, even though diabetes and obesity are rampant.

My Plate” is certainly less cluttered than its triangular predecessor. I mean, it's a circle divided into four slightly unequal parts. (Plus a separate little circle off to the right.) How much simpler could an icon be? But for all its alleged clarity and simplicity, does it really tell you anything?

In fairness, if you actually take the time to go to the previously cited site, all the information you could ever desire is both copious and clear. The website is an absolute font of diet and nutrition knowledge, jam-packed with all kinds of facts and figures and tips and ideas. But until the Feds figure out how to put it all on a cereal box, My Plate is no different than MyPyramid. It's a pretty picture that is not really worth the thousand words it took to describe it. (Actually, 1368 words, but who's counting?)

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