Monday, October 24, 2011

Pick a new plate: how MyPlate fails

Choose for healthy commodities
At no time in history have we had more access to information, and yet as modern people today many of us don’t know anything more about how to feed ourselves than bringing it from plate to mouth. Every day, millions of people eat food that they don’t know how to make. They don’t know what the ingredients are, where those products come from, or how they’re manufactured. We have lost traditional knowledge of how to make food, but also, we’ve lost the larger knowledge of what our diets should look like. Food that used to be regional, seasonal, and prepared and eaten in particular ways, have been replaced with mass-produced products, even fresh produce, that doesn’t vary throughout the year, or from place to place. For guidance on eating these foods, instead of family and community, we have central authorities and credentialed experts. Foremost among these authoritative institutions is the United States Department of Agriculture.

To begin to understand why the USDA is a suspect place to get nutrition information, begin with the USDA mission statement. The USDA’s mission is to promote commodity crops: grains, meat, and dairy; and, to a far lesser extent, garden crops. A pie chart of subsidies from the USDA to the various food industries looks like this:
Subsidies to commodities

Compare the subsidies the USDA gives to the largest producers of these cash crops, with the USDA's official recommendations on diet to individuals. Then look at other sources of advice on diet that do not share the USDA’s ethical issue of being in the business of supporting business as well as being tasked with promoting the health of Americans. The bias becomes clear. MyPlate is skewed in favor of keeping legacy food groups that are commodities, like dairy and grains, on the plates of Americans, and creating new groups, like “Protein,” to encourage us to eat the new industrial food commodities, including refined soy and whey proteins.

Someone at the USDA is probably very proud for having thought up the “Protein” food group. It seems so inclusive, like a nondenominational blessing. It caters to several belief systems about food at once: industry-friendly nutritionism, the “plant-based” diet continuum from flexitarian omnivores to completely vegetarian vegans, and fat phobia. Unlike “meat,” “nuts,” or any other real food containing protein, “protein” itself is refined and treated as a commodity. MyPlate reflects the belief in a plant-based diet as health-promoting, while doing nothing to promote fresh produce. Highly processed foods like breakfast cereal, skim milk, and orange juice are included in its food groups.

Yet the USDA finds fault with fatty meat from a pastured animal, and with whole, raw milk: neither of these are part of an industrial diet, and their industrial counterparts are both correlated with disease. Because the USDA does not recognize the differences between industrial and natural foods, like the more balanced omega fatty acids profiles or other vitamins and enzymes present in pastured animal products, these healthy foods are not part of MyPlate, and their consumption is actively discouraged: the meat because it is fatty, and the milk because it is unpasteurized.

Dairy is still promoted, of course. A round plate should be a pie chart, but there’s an extra plate--or MyGlass--off to one side, full of "Dairy." And although the proportions are clearly intended as a guide, the shape of this pie chart makes it difficult to read. How much of each of these food groups is in a healthy diet? Should we “eat 120%”? Why isn’t MyGlass instead a salad, a cup of bone broth, a pickle plate, a glass of wine, or plain water? Can MyPlate even be modified into a proper model, or should it be scrapped in favor of a whole new shape?

While bone stocks and fermented beverages are also important traditional foods, they are not commodities, and their protein sparing and enzymatic benefits are simply not recognized as significant to the nutrition scientists or public health professionals who created MyPlate. Collard greens have almost exactly as much calcium as milk, cup for cup, but few people know it, because there’s no “Got Collards?” campaign educating the public, and there’s no “Dark, leafy green vegetables” group on MyPlate, either. This promotion of commodities is far reaching and very effective. Children learning about the food groups for the first time are introduced to milk, but not to collards. Which is enshrined in the school lunch program? Which deserves to be?

Milk isn’t even a necessary food. While Americans certainly drink lots of milk, traditionally, the people of the Americas didn’t drink cow’s milk. Throughout Asia and much of Africa, people don’t drink milk. Milk doesn’t need promoting as a food.

There should be more food groups on MyPlate dedicated to vegetables. Of all of the food groups on MyPlate, no group contains more diversity than this one quarter of the plate.

The “Vegetables” group, like the “Protein” group, lumps together foods with very different properties. Orange or green, starchy, fibrous, sweet, bitter, and sour, they all have different traits. Most traditional diets include some raw vegetables, and a fermented vegetable dish or two, like kimchee or sauerkraut. Raw and fermented foods provide many benefits worth promoting on MyPlate. Dark, leafy greens, and pod and flower vegetables, are important enough to merit their own, separate food group, and should be consumed often. Pretending that all vegetables are equivalent, from acorn squash to zucchini, raw kale salad to French fried potato, is just as gross an oversimplification as putting all “Protein” foods in one group.

Seven food groups promoted by the USDA in 1943
One of the original seven food groups was butter. Fats and oils, particularly the fats found in meat and dairy from animals raised on pasture and forage, are critical to human health. Once the pinnacle of the food pyramid, butter, lard, and other healthy fats are not anywhere to be found on MyPlate. The Weston A. Price alternative guidelines, based on foods included in all traditional diets, has just four food groups, one of which is Fats and Oils. Fat is a macronutrient, like protein, and just as essential to life. But MyPlate, with its disdain for traditional knowledge and exaltation of nutritionist dogma, fatphobia, and magical thinking about dietary fat, doesn’t include a “Fats” group at all.

The Food Pyramid of 1992
Then there’s everything else about food that nutritionism, and MyPlate, completely ignore, because it’s too hard to produce on an industrial scale, like the enzymes in raw foods. Nutritional guidelines from the USDA do not assign any value to a food for its environmental sustainability. They avoid any suggestion that fresh, organic, locally grown food in its season is preferable in any way to commercially prepared, conventionally grown alternatives. MyPlate does not suggest any of the synergies of traditional, complementary food pairings with its groupings. It doesn’t provide guidance on making meals suitable to different bodies, stages of life, or cultural norms. MyPlate doesn’t suggest a social setting, or the value of sharing a meal with family or friends. And even as MyPlate promotes a plant-based diet, it provides insufficient guidance to vegetarians and those with common food allergies to wheat, corn, soy, and dairy.

The most gaping flaw in the MyPlate model is that it does not provide enough guidance to be properly nourished. Since its only objective is to guide Americans in eating a healthy diet, it appears to be a failure. If, however, its real purpose is to uphold the USDA mission to promote commodity crops, it appears that MyPlate is a success.