Understanding MyPlate: Making the Most of the USDA's Latest Nutrition Guide

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MyPlate is the name of the latest nutrition guide published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of its ongoing efforts to inform the American public about the essentials of a healthy diet. Its symbol depicts a traditional place setting, consisting of a plate and a glass divided into five food groups-fruits, grains, vegetables, protein, and dairy. The MyPlate formulation is the latest in over 110 years of nutrition guides from the USDA and is an attempt to find a way to present basic nutrition advice in a format that is easily understood by most people.

The basic message is that you should attempt to fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, the other half with grain products and protein sources, and serve the meal with a glass of a healthful dairy drink such as milk. The guide breaks portions down even further. The USDA recommends that each meal should consist of 30% grains, 30% vegetables, 20% fruits, and 20% protein, along with a dairy drink or cup of yogurt. The guidelines also suggest that you should favor lower-fat protein sources such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts, and that the overall meal should be low in saturated fats, trans fats, nutritional cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

The MyPlate guidelines and symbol replace several other guidelines that the USDA has developed in the past. In 1943, the USDA published the "Basic Seven," dividing foods into seven different food groups one should eat to receive proper nutrition. In 1956, the USDA simplified their recommendations as the "Basic Four," defining the four food groups as vegetables and fruits, milk, meat, and cereals and breads.

In 1992, the USDA introduced the "Food Pyramid," which suggested the recommended weekly portions of each of these food groups: six to eleven servings of grains at the base of the pyramid, three to five servings of vegetables, two to four servings of fruits, and two to three servings of meats. Fats and oils were relegated to the apex of the pyramid, and were recommended to be used more sparingly.

Finally, in 2005, the USDA updated its nutrition guide with "MyPyramid," which replaced the hierarchical levels of food groups with wedges that were intended to visually suggest the recommended serving sizes. While every nutrition guide involves trade-offs and compromises, most experts believe the current MyPlate recommendations communicate the right ideas and are easier to understand than prior ones.

The USDA sees this as central to its mission: to inform the public about nutrition in a way that it can intuitively grasp without much reading or study. The new guidelines are intended for the general public over the age of two and are not intended as a therapeutic diet for any specific health condition. The USDA recommends that individuals with special nutritional needs consult their healthcare provider to determine a proper diet for them.

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