The USDA’s New “My Plate” – the Protein and Dairy Problems

The USDA recently launched an updated version of their infamous dietary icon (the former pyramid). It’s called “My Plate,” and it’s touted as the most user-friendly dietary icon since the USDA’s first in 1916. Of course, the plate is not without its issues, but I think the icon is a step forward.

First, the icon is a plate (imagine that!) which most people use to eat their meals, unlike the pyramid, which exist mainly in Egypt. Although, I will admit to eating my current PB&J straight out of my reused bread bag. The icon is also (mostly) food based, so if you were to follow the icon literally, you’d have a pretty deliciously balanced meal proportioning your plate with quadrants for each food-stuff, protein aside (but I’ll get to that in a sec).

Another important change is in the dairy component. It’s positioned off to the side, almost as an afterthought. This feels like the ultimate triumph for my childhood self, who suffered through every family dinner’s mandatory glass of milk, which had to be finished before I was allowed to leave the table. Like the protein problem, the dairy problem pervades many an American’s home. The dairy industry has embedded the idea that milk is the only adequate source of calcium and osteoporosis-prevention on the planet. And yet, Americans are terrified of cheese and “saturated fat.” The dairy problem is a paradox: we’re terrified of our cheese, and yet we can’t live without our daily glass of milk.

Finally, the USDA has done away with the calorie counts, portion sizes, etc. which were cumbersome and unnecessary. In a balanced diet, calories are irrelevant. The energy measurements just provide another way for Americans to demonize food, especially those prone to dieting (particularly body conscious young girls and women).

Now on to what nutritionist Marion Nestle has dubbed the protein problem. Again, everything on My Plate is a food, save for the protein quadrant. As Nestle points out on her blog, protein is a nutrient, not a food. From a vegetarian’s point of view, this is problematic, because what else is protein but grains, dairy, and certain vegetables? Of course, from the average meat eater’s perspective, the protein quadrant is justified. I can’t tell you how many time’s I’ve been asked this awfully misguided question by meat-eaters, “How do you get your protein?” Well, protein is not unique to meat, despite what the meat industry has managed to drill into every unsuspecting American’s brain from day one. Protein deficiency is the last thing that should worry the American eater. The average western diet has an excess of protein, and could actually use a little more of those red and green quadrants, i.e. good ol’ fruits and vegetables.


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