The USDA changes the food pyramid into a food plate

By Gus Bode

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Monday, June 6:

In one of those “if a tree falls in a forest” moments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week replaced its much-criticized and widely ignored “food pyramid” with a “food plate” chart.

Soon, all over America, grocery shoppers and restaurant diners will be able to consult a simple (you should pardon the expression) “pie” chart to determine what they should buy.


Look, honey. Don’t eat that big slab of meat. Protein takes up less than a quarter of the chart.

Thanks for telling me, dear. Load up half my plate with fruits and vegetables and load up a quarter of the plate with brown rice. And waiter, take away this red wine and bring me a skim milk.

With due respect to first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity and to the hard-working USDA nutritionists and graphic designers who spent $2 million to develop a circle divided into four not-quite-even parts, we doubt that Americans will pay any more attention to the food plate than they did to the food pyramid.

The amazing thing about the food pyramid is the controversy it created in its 20 years as official USDA policy, even though studies indicated most Americans paid no attention to it whatsoever.

Nutritionists criticized the influence of the farm lobbies because the pyramid didn’t distinguish between whole grains (good) and white flour (not so good). The beef industry insisted that the pyramid not discriminate against red meat. Sugared breakfast cereal, high-fat snacks and high-carbohydrate white breads qualified as foundational foods for the pyramid.

But consider: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 1990, the year before the pyramid debuted, no state in America had an obesity rate higher than 15 percent. By 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had rates lower than 20 percent.

Will the food plate change that? Of course not. It’s intended only as part of a broader public education program. But even that won’t be enough.


Studies show that people make poor food choices because they either (a) don’t care or (b) don’t want to go to the trouble of preparing better meals or (c) can’t afford the heavy load of fresh fruits and vegetables that nutritionists recommend. If there’s a category (d) people who don’t know the difference, it’s very small.

Indeed, a 2009 study led by a Duke University researcher suggested that providing healthy options might even backfire. “We find that simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing the person to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice,” reported Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

Since the mid-1950s, America has managed to cut cigarette smoking rates from 45 percent to about 20 percent with a combination of public education, advertising controls, high taxation and legal limits on where people could smoke. That’s what it would take to control obesity, too.

The food and farm lobbies wouldn’t stand for that, and our guess is that most Americans wouldn’t either. We’re left with a $2 million pie chart and our self-control, or lack thereof.