I never really “got” the food pyramid, and I’ll bet you didn’t either.

Throw out the pyramid, and embrace the plate

Tom Karst
National Editor

The pyramid, in its original 1992 iteration, shows a broad base of grains and carbohydrates, narrows slightly for fruits and vegetables and shrinks as it ascends for meats and milk and is capped with the “eat sparingly” stone of oils, fats and sugars.

The food pyramid has faced critics over the years, but that hasn’t deterred the U.S. Department of Agriculture from continuing to trot it out as the icon for dietary advice to Americans.

In 2002, some critics began to wonder if America’s escalating obesity epidemic was related to the pyramid’s effectiveness or lack thereof.

Throw out the pyramid, and embrace the plate

In April 2005, the USDA — which has the sole responsibility for the icon — unveiled an updated mypyramid.gov graphic, which showed a hiker ascending a pyramid now adorned with broad color-coded bands representing fruits and vegetables, a narrower band for meats, and a still skinnier band for oils and fats.

USDA officials at the time urged consumers to log on to www.mypyramid.gov to find their own personalized pyramid. I wrote in coverage from The Packer in 2005:

“Despite preferences by some produce industry advocates to use a ‘plate’ graphic concept to communicate dietary guidance — the National Cancer Institute’s 5 a Day Program and the Produce For Better Health Foundation have been exploring using the half-a-plate concept as dietary guidance — Eric Hentges, executive director for the agency’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, said research supported the continuation of the pyramid.”

Fast-forward to 2011. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines have just been released and the USDA is expected to issue a new or revised dietary guidance icon as early as March.

Nutrition advocates do not know if the agency will plow ahead with the pyramid concept or take some other approach.

Considering that one of the six main consumer messages linked to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines is “make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” there is at least some optimism that the plate concept may be considered as a new icon.

The plate visual was strongly considered by the Produce for Better Health Foundation when it rebranded five years ago but was rejected because it was deemed “too daunting” for consumers to follow, according to Elizabeth Pivonka, president and chief executive officer of Hockessin, Del.-based PBH.

Still, PBH uses the “half a plate” message on its website and will highlight that core theme even more now, she said.

Five years ago and today, Pivonka believes “More Matters” is a more motivational and inspirational message for consumers, she said.

In my view, the government’s message must cut through the clutter.

Surely, now is the time for all of us to understand precisely how we need to change the way we eat.

The plate icon would not confuse consumers with messages about cups or servings and would dispense with the incomprehensible pyramid icon.

People would immediately “get it.” There are no worries about the color code key to broad and narrow bands on the pyramid — just make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Yes, it is a tall order, but not as tough as figuring out the USDA MyPyramid website.

Simply regulate diet based on the visual image. We can see with the plate icon what food gives us the best health results.

Some food interests probably wouldn’t mind if the dietary guidance icon remains a convoluted jumble.

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s vow to curb obesity and prevent escalating health care costs should be marked in favor of a change to the “plate.”

During a teleconference about the dietary guidelines, I asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about the icon and raised the prospect of the plate visual replacing the pyramid.

Vilsack responded:

“Well, we are taking a look at ways in which we can make sure that the visual is something that captures the right message but does it in a way that people who are very, very busy will be able to understand and appreciate almost immediately.”

He said many suggestions are being considered and the agency may be prepared to talk about its direction by next month.

Please, Secretary Vilsack, pitch the pyramid! Promote the plate instead.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

Do you agree that USDA should pitch the food guide pyramid in favor of a less confusing icon? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.