A New Direction: Food Pyramid Yields to PCRM’s Power Plate
The Food Guide Pyramid has adorned classroom walls and food packages since 1992, but a new, more accurate, and more user-friendly graphic has been developed by PCRM experts for use by schools, health care professionals, and individuals looking for up-to-date nutrition advice.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture created the Eating Right Pyramid diagram in 1991. Unlike the Basic Four diagram it replaced, it promoted grains, vegetables, and fruits, with somewhat less emphasis on meats and dairy products, and even less on sugar and added fats. It was quickly withdrawn, however, under objections by the meat industry.
A year later, the Food Guide Pyramid re-emerged, nearly identical to its predecessor. However, as the paint dried on the new graphic, it was clear that it was already out of date. Even with reduced graphic emphasis on meats and dairy products, it still called for two to three servings of both each day. Studies had already shown, however, that people who follow its advice to consume meat and dairy products are, as a group, less healthy than people who avoid these products altogether.
For many, the Pyramid seemed overly abstract and did not translate very well into daily choices. After all, people eat from plates, not pyramids.
In 2005, the USDA modified the graphic again, introducing its current—and even more controversial—food guide, MyPyramid. The graphic—a series of colored stripes—includes no food images at all and requires Internet access to gain dietary guidance. Its program content continues to recommend meat, dairy products, and other unhealthful foods.
New Building Blocks
PCRM dietitians and doctors saw the need for a set of easy-to-use dietary guidance tools that serve the current needs of the public—to curb dietary excesses and fight chronic diseases.
After identifying principles and goals to guide the materials’ development, PCRM’s director of nutrition education Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., and other PCRM experts examined the Institute of Medicine and World Health Organization reports on dietary intake and identified the most healthful sources of nutrients.
The team concluded that the new food diagram should focus on grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans. These foods are nutrient-rich, free of cholesterol and animal fats, and can aid in preventing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases plaguing Americans. PCRM’s nutrition experts excluded meat, dairy products, and eggs since they are unnecessary and present serious health risks.
Thinking Outside the Pyramid
Historically, food diagrams have used shapes that have no connection to food. But several leading health organizations, including the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Diabetes Association, use plate images to communicate nutrition information with more literal meaning.
To determine what shape would be best for PCRM’s diagram, the team developed and tested four versions: a triangular shape similar to MyPyramid, a square, a stylized plate, and a simple plate. These were evaluated by children and adults using an anonymous online survey. The plate-shaped diagram had a higher aesthetic rating, compared with square and triangular diagrams. It also had a high rate of content recall.
PCRM’s new diagram presents the basics of a menu for optimal health through the concrete image of a plate. The Power Plate eliminates portion suggestions and food hierarchies and simply recommends a variety from all four groups. The graphic can translate into grain-based meals, as might be familiar in Asian cuisine, legume-based meals for Latin American tastes, or meals based on vegetables and fruits for Mediterranean flavors, and easily accommodates macrobiotic or raw-food diets. Foods that are not depicted (e.g., meats, dairy products, and nuts) are considered strictly optional (and some are best avoided altogether).
The USDA is set to release its new Dietary Guidelines for Americans this year. As the department deliberates over the new guidelines, PCRM hopes the Power Plate will help Americans understand the basics of a healthful diet.
It was once thought that plant-based diets could provide adequate protein only if specific foods, such as grains and beans, were consumed together, a concept known as “protein complementing.” It is now known that a diet based on grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes provides all the essential amino acids needed to produce complete protein, even without special combining.
Calcium, iron, and other minerals are especially abundant in legumes and green leafy vegetables, or “beans and greens.”
Vitamin B12 is not found in most plant foods. For individuals following a diet free of all animal products, vitamin B12 needs can easily be met through fortified foods, including many breakfast cereals, some meat substitute products, and fortified soymilk. Most common multivitamins also contain B12. Seaweed and products like tempeh are generally not reliable sources of vitamin B12.
Regular intake of vitamin B12 is important to meet nutritional needs. The recommended dietary allowance for adults is 2.4 micrograms per day, with increased requirements for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.