USDA Dinner Plate

June 1, 2011 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Tomorrow will mark the release of a new educational tool created by the U.S.D.A. that is intended to shape the way Americans eat. A “dinner plate” will be used to illustrate the recommended intake of various food groups instead of using the previous graphic – a “food pyramid”. The exact details of what will be served on the plate have yet to be made public. But clues provided by administration insiders highlight the expected guidelines that are to come.

The plate will supposedly be divided into four different colors and sections. One will represent fruits. Another vegetables. The remaining two will be reserved for grains and protein. Next to the plate is an accompanying, circular image which signifies the appropriateness of including low-fat milk or yogurt products.

The problem I have with the “new” guidelines is that they exemplify the pitfalls of policies created in a metaphoric bubble created by the establishment. Dissenting points of view are rarely heard at all or as loudly as they ought to be. I covered this issue in detail in a previous column entitled, “Food Pyramid Follies“. The major gaffe in the current guidelines is that they recommend essentially the same style of eating that has contributed to the present health crisis in the US and other industrialized countries. This makes no sense. Albert Einstein was famous for defining insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. This appears to be a case in point.

There are many ways of railing against a system with which you disagree. Speaking out against such concepts and policies is a good start. Finding areas of agreement while expressing your opposing views in a determined but respectful manner also helps. This is a strategy that I attempt to employ in my daily life. First and foremost, let me acknowledge the positive aspects of the dinner plate. Meals that are constructed around low-glycemic fruits and non-starchy vegetables are indeed health promoting. Over the past few years alone, a minimum of ten studies have found that diets rich in this variety of fruits and vegetables reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, overall mortality and a variety of cancers. Simply including more of these fruits and vegetables in the average diet would do most people a world of good. Thumbs up on this concept. (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

A protein source, which comprises approximately a quarter of a plate, is also a reasonable goal. Most diets do not advocate excessive or high protein intake. This includes the majority of low-carbohydrate diets. However, a moderate amount of protein coming from sources with high protein efficiency ratios generally discourages preventable disease and promotes healthier weight management in old and young alike. (11,12,13,14,15)

To my mind, grains ought not be recommended to the population at large. This is a food group that is extraordinarily prevalent in the modern food supply and may well be contributing to the health epidemics we’re currently contending with – namely, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. One of the best selling and most widely cultivated grains in the US and worldwide is wheat. Both refined and whole wheat contains a common food allergen known as gluten which has been implicated in a number of health conditions ranging from dermatitis to psychiatric disorders. Some evidence also suggests that certain genotypes may respond to grain in an unexpectedly detrimental manner with regard to cardiovascular disease. (16,17,18,19,20,21,22)

Dairy, whether full-fat, low-fat or skimmed, poses no negative influence in the diets of most people who tolerate it well. Recent studies conclude that menu plans rich in dairy tend to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Conflicting evidence also suggests that dairy consumption may assist with long term weight management. (23,24,25,26,27,28,29)

Eating Vegetables First Increases Total Vegetable Intake in Children

Source: Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 May;91(5):1237-43. (a)

Since we’re dealing with a dinner plate as an illustrative model, I thought it might be useful to provide real world examples of typical plates of food that I eat and frequently recommend to others. Generally speaking, my idea of an optimal meal would differ from the U.S.D.A.’s version in two ways: 1) I would replace the grain portion with nuts, seeds or more non-starchy vegetables. 2) I would allow for slightly more protein and significantly higher quantities of healthy fats. A low fat diet, this is not. This simple shift promotes more stable blood sugar levels and insulin production, greater nutrient density and satiety. This manner of eating simultaneously addresses the major health threats that the government hopes to minimize. (30,31,32,33,34)

Breakfast: Greek Yogurt (unsweetened) topped with Organic Blueberries & Raspberries and Organic Raw Walnuts. To Drink: Organic Coffee (Decaffeinated or Regular) or Organic Green or White Tea.

Lunch: Wild Salmon Salad served with Organic Avocado, Cucumber and/or Jicama Slices. To Drink: Water w/ fresh lemon.

Dinner: Buffalo Burger(s) topped with Grilled (Organic) Mushrooms, Onions and Sliced Tomatoes. A side of Roasted Cauliflower or Grilled Shishito Peppers. To Drink: Organic Red Wine (Dealcoholized or Regular) or Sparkling Ginger Tea.

Snack: Sugar-Free Hot Cocoa; Nuts; or Olives and Raw Cheese.

If you and your family aren’t natural fruit and veggie lovers, rest assured that you can change your ways. Studies conducted on school children, the toughest food critics, indicate that continual exposure to fresh produce actually increases the likability of these foods. How fruits and vegetables are incorporated into meals and prepared makes a big difference as well. Valuable techniques along these lines can be discovered and implemented by adventurous parents and teachers. You can also hire consultants to teach you how to create wholesome meals that don’t taste like stereotypical health food. I do this all the time for clients of mine, family and friends. Making such an effort is certainly worthwhile, especially if you find ways to improve upon the conventional “wisdom” espoused in the 2011 U.S.D.A. guidelines. (35,36,37)

Be well!


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Posted in Diet and Weight Loss, Food and Drink, Nutrition

3 Comments & Updates to “USDA Dinner Plate”

  1. joanna Says:

    While I admire your encouragement to heat more healthily I am concerned about the costs incurred of the meals you suggest. For someone on a limited budget and limited access to some of the rarer alternatives you suggest, the meals end up impossibly difficult to achieve. Grains may have a bad press but they are cheaper and can be more wholesome if other ingredients are included. I mix rice with buckwheat and sometimes barley, both easily available and bringing different nutrients to the table but made more digestible with the rice than buckwheat and barley alone. I wonder too whether you could include more recipes with beans and peas as protein contributors as they are far cheaper than meat based protein?

    I hope that does not come across as overly negative as your site is the first one I turn to to find out about the latest research on herbal remedies and find it a valuable source of information, although I did have to look up Stevia elsewhere as I thought from your column that it was a manufactured product and hadn’t realised it is something that can be grown from seed and so something I am going to look into for next year, to see if it will grow here in Latvia.

  2. JP Says:

    Hello, Joanna. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I sincerely appreciate them.

    Cost is a very real consideration to be sure. Ultimately, my goal is to encourage everyone to spend their food budget on the most nutrient dense options. This often means eating smaller amounts of calorically dense foods (example: nuts) instead of larger quantities of lower calorie options. In some instances, grains and legumes may be the most practical option. In which case, the best available candidates ought to be selected – wild rice vs. white rice, quinoa vs. wheat, etc.

    There are almost always accessible alternatives to the more exotic foods that I mention. For instance, buffalo burgers can be replaced with chicken, grass-fed beef or turkey burgers. Egg or tuna salad can be used rather than wild salmon salad. Just a few examples.

    Awhile back, I wrote a column about legumes. I think it may be of interest, if you haven’t already read it. I’ll also put together a future blog describing the best use of legumes in recipes.

    Please let me know if you enjoy the homegrown stevia. I think that’s a wonderful option. Whenever possible, I think using unrefined foods is best. In the case of stevia (and sugar), many people have a certain taste expectation. Whole stevia leaves impart a more complex and distinctive flavor than the purified extracts. This is just fine (and possibly superior) to some users but not all.

    Be well!


  3. joanna Says:

    Thank you that is helpful. I am very aware of bad dietary habits of some of those on low incomes and how a little knowledge could bring many benefits. I remember one friend, when I was living in the states, having no idea what to do with a bag full of spring onions from a food bank, which seemed a real shame when most of the offerings were bakery products. Cheap, nutritious meals supplemented with home-grown vegetables at best or pot grown herbs at worse would do much to improve the diets of quite a few nations.

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