Here’s a quick quiz: Who took the place of the Food Pyramid, the government’s guide to healthy eating that stood for almost 20 years?
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone.
More than a decade after Agriculture Department officials abandoned the pyramid, few Americans have heard of MyPlate, the lunch-plate-shaped logo that emphasizes fruits and vegetables.
According to a study released Tuesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, only about 25% of adults knew about MyPlate, and less than 10% had tried using it. These 2017-2020 the numbers showed only a slight improvement over a similar study a few years ago.
That means the Obama administration’s program, which costs about $3 million a year, hasn’t reached most Americans, even as diet-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease continue to rise.
“Right now, this is a primary education tool that sends guidance to Americans,” said study leader Edwina Wambogo, a nutrition epidemiologist at the agency. “MyPlate should work a little better.
The results are hardly surprising, said food policy expert Marion Nestle.
“Why would anyone expect otherwise? she said in an email. “MyPlate has never had an education campaign, is now old hat for only healthy foods, has said nothing about unhealthy foods, and is so far removed from what Americans actually eat that it seems unattainable.”
A top USDA official said the agency’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget seeks to raise $3 million to $10 million.
“We really want to make sure that MyPlate and other important tools are in the hands of more people,” said Stacy Dean, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
The new study found that people who rated their diet as excellent, very good or good were significantly more likely to have heard of MyPlate than those who said their diet was fair or poor. Of those who heard about the plan, about a third tried to follow it, the study found.
MyPlate was launched in 2011 with the support of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who focused on healthy eating and exercise.
It uses a lunch plate with four colored sections for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein, and a smaller circle for dairy products such as low-fat milk or yogurt. This encouraged Americans to make half of their meals with fruits and vegetables in what was promoted as a quick and easy format.
But the guide didn’t provide essential details, said Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, a nutritionist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“It doesn’t distinguish between starchy vegetables and non-starchy vegetables,” she said. “There’s no fat there.”
MyPlate also fails to recognize that vegetables, grains and dairy also contain protein, Nestle added.
MyPlate replaced the USDA Food Pyramid, which was used from 1992-2011. Although accepted by generations of schoolchildren, the pyramid has been criticized by nutritionists for encouraging too many carbohydrates through grains and reducing fat intake.
“It was not the best set of recommendations on many levels,” Surampudi said. “Our diabetes rates have not decreased. Our obesity rates have not gone down. It took off.”
The new study called for an investigation into why some groups are less aware of and complying with government guidance and how best to reach those who are eating the wrong foods.
But it’s complicated, said Surampudi. In general, people now know that they should eat more fruits and vegetables. Also, the message becomes confusing.
“The minute it gets a little confusing, people shut down,” she said.