Pyramid Scheme

June 3, 2011

My Plate

Yesterday the USDA unveiled their new diagram for what constitutes a balanced, healthy diet. Seen above, it’s a plate, with the proportions clearly delineated and reflecting what we’ve come to accept as a healthy food intake: mostly vegetables and grains, followed by fruit, then protein, and finally some dairy. It’s a vast improvement over the last “food pyramid,” which you probably ignored because it conveyed almost no useful information:

It tried to convey the same sense of proportion, but was too cluttered to be effective. (And what was the yellow stripe supposed to represent?) I always imagined this to be the Aztec diet: offerings to the gods piled up at the bottom, with a “virgins/blood/chocolate” icon missing from the apex. It was classic Tuftean chartjunk that made you long for it’s predecessor:

This pyramid tried to convey the correct proportions, but misunderstood the importance people place on “the thing at the top of the graph”: Even though it’s labeled “USE SPARINGLY,”  fats, oils, & sweets are frequently construed as essential due to their prominent position. This user error is what prompted the switch to the plate: after all, anyone can understand a pie chart.

I think MyPlate is a step in the right direction, although it has a few flaws. It lumps all protein sources together, making red meat as important as seafood, poultry, and nuts. It also “hides” fats in the dairy and proteins groups, providing no visual cue for the amount of fat that should be consumed daily. I’m willing to give it a chance – combined with a much more informative web site where you can click on any group for an in-depth explanation, the site has a lot to offer.

There is, however, an alternate MyPlate, proposed by James Beard Award-winning Twitter personality Ruth Bourdain:

That more like it, although I’d switch the proportions of beef and pork. And where are the separate areas for bacon and chocolate? I think I need to have a conversation with the First Lady: she can bring the greens, I’ll bring the bacon explosion.

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