Opinion: Musings on MyPlate, the USDA's Replacement for the Food Guide Pyramid

The replacement for the USDA Food Guide Pyramid teaches us a lesson in geometry. But nutrition? Not so much.

Cakes, cookies, donuts, sodas, pizza, ice cream, and sausage.

Now that I have your (quasi-erotic) attention, put down the caramelized bacon. Look, the government has come out with shocking news. Those foods I just listed? They’re not good for us. I know—genuinely shocking. After all, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s only been trying to get the message out since 1992, when it first published its Food Guide Pyramid to nudge us toward healthier eating. But, apparently, we all just assumed you should heap food on your plate until it resembled a pyramid.

The whole thing was like a Walt Disney nightmare of American dinners. It was Pastas on Parade, and now we all look like Dumbo. So, of course, the government’s stepped in with even more “help”: a June re-design of the schematic, in which the pyramid has been transformed into a plate divided up into portions representing various food groups. The First Lady (and her biceps) is even repping the effort and has assured us that Sasha and Malia are following along at home at 1600.

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So how did Mamabama and the rest do? Well, at first glance, aside from the fact that it looks unnervingly like those Simon games from the 1980s, MyPlate’s not a bad attempt. Probably. Honestly, the thing is kind of hard to read. It kinda, sorta, maybe appears that MyPlate recommends more veggies and protein than the Pyramid did. Under a magnifying glass, there could be less carbs, and the fruit looks real pretty.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I sort of feel that, if you’re trying to create guidelines, shouldn’t they actually guide? If I didn’t already happen to know the difference, there’s nothing on MyPlate that’s going to let me know that French fries in paprika butter-lard isn’t a reasonable vegetable substitute for arugula salad. It doesn’t tell you—if you don’t already realize that short ribs aren’t a grain—that chicken-fried steak is not the same as a handful of unsalted almonds when it comes to a high-protein midday snack or that strawberry ice-cream banana splits have just one or two nutritional drawbacks as compared to a bushel of fresh blueberries.

I could go on: grains could mean beer, or whatever crop is devastating the Brazilian rain forest these days. Protein could mean soy-based substitutes that cause breast cancer. Meanwhile, the closest MyPlate comes to admonishing us for our love of fried foods is the rhetorical head-spinner that opens one page of its website, choosemyplate.gov: “Solid fats are fats that are solid.” MyPlate should come with the textbook from your high-school biology class and your college course in first-order logic.

And, actually, let’s throw in geometry: how big are all those wedges supposed be? My turkey drumsticks and asparagus stalks don’t come shaped like purple pie slices. Do I actually have to sit there measuring radii on this thing? I want pie, not pi.

Hell, the thing is a whole semester’s syllabus. Hieroglyphics? Chinese? You could put it in binary code, and your average PC would crash in despair. Or how about basic physics? I’ll be measuring the volume of my food in a large graduated cylinder—and, oh no, I studied American units, but this damn thing is calibrated in metric.

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Look, I’m not denying we have food problems in this country. I’m just saying I don’t feel any healthier (or, for that matter, wiser) looking at this thing, and neither, it seems to me, do the kids who have to live on white bread and fried chain-restaurant burgers because of what Wall Street requires from the middle class.

Then again, MyPlate might actually do its part for the obesity epidemic: if the government keeps spending this much time on cross-eyed schematics (oh shoot—I’m gonna have to multiply by the relative densities of the nutrients…) instead of certain other issues, soon we’ll all be unable to afford to eat at all.

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