MyPlate Mania: Much Ado About Nothing

Anyone who thinks that the USDA’s new food icon, MyPlate (www.choosemyplate.gov) is going to change the eating habits of Americans, needs to have his head examined.

While there’s no question that the new USDA food icon is a vast improvement over the jumbled and confusing pyramid, MyPlate’s usefulness is limited, just like its predecessors. It will be used as a teaching tool at schools — never mind that the entire concept of MyPlate is currently contradicted in school cafeterias, vending machines and stores. It will be slapped on the front of processed food packaging by Big Food and Beverage, deep pocketed industries eager to capitalize on any association with health — but Americans will take little notice. And it will likely be trotted out by the USDA and Let’s Move for ceremonial occasions.

In the meantime, even if MyPlate were staring them in the face (which is unlikely), Americans’ plates will continue to be piled high with anything but produce and whole grains because current federal and state policies (or lack thereof) discourage their production and consumption. The “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy of behavior change doesn’t work for anyone, not even the federal government.

If we want Americans to truly change the way they eat, we need to change our food system and environment through federal policy. Let’s start by enacting some of the food policies that have been bandied about for years: school nutrition standards (which passed in December 2010 but the House GOP has threatened to defund); nutrition standards for foods marketed to children (a set of strong voluntary standards were recently proposed by an Interagency Workgroup, but the House GOP and Big Food are working feverishly to scuttle them ); menu labeling (which passed in 2010 and has shown promising results but the House GOP has threatened to defund); the sugary drink tax (which has thrown Big Beverage into a philanthropic frenzy in order to silence potential critics and kill legislation); and, the most important policy change of all — reworking our entire farm subsidy system. Until these policies are in place, the American dinner plate will look less like MyPlate and more like the average plate carried back from a buffet table.

Food icons are nice, filled with bright colors and have made for days of exciting media coverage. But they aren’t the answer to our problems. Let’s focus on what will really make a difference — enacting thoughtful and meaningful policies that make healthy food affordable and create a healthier food environment for all Americans.

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