What are the limitations of MyPlate?
Over the years, the guidelines for eating a balanced diet have made many attempts at getting people to eat enough vegetables, fruits, and whole grains without much success. Instead, Americans are gaining weight and moving less. Is MyPlate enough to help change this? Most likely not by itself it won't.
The problem with nutrition is that it's not as simple as "eat this" and "don't eat that." Educating people about good nutrition takes time, and the educational process needs to be individualized for people to listen. Food is a very personal thing with a lot of meaning behind it for many people. There are childhood memories of favorite foods, family recipes, favorite restaurants, and dislikes that all need to be taken into account when you help someone change their eating habits. How can one icon ever do all that?
MyPlate has several limitations when it comes to educating people about a healthy diet. To start with, it shows various food groups that you need in your diet, but you don't necessarily need them in one meal. The meal on this plate is definitely not one that most people have for breakfast. What option do you learn from this if you don't follow what it shows? You also don't usually have fruit on your plate for lunch or dinner so what are you supposed to replace that with? Ideally, lunch and dinner would have half of all of the food from vegetables. That means that you may have a bowl on the side of the plate and some on the plate, not just half the plate full of veggies.
One major complaint regarding MyPlate is the section labeled "protein." In terms of nutrition, it is not accurate to call a food protein. There are six groups that foods are divided into based on the nutrients that they contain. These groups are vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy (milk and yogurt), beans/meats (including fish, eggs, poultry and soy), and fat. There is no food group called protein because protein is a nutrient, not a food. Many people think of meats when you say protein, but that is not the only source of protein. Protein is found in vegetables, grains, dairy, beans, and meats. You eat food to get nutrients; you don't just eat nutrients. The six essential nutrients are protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamin, minerals, and water. The plate would have been more accurate to say "meat or meat alternative."
Another limitation to MyPlate is that you don't really learn exactly what to eat just by looking at what is shown. When looking at the plate, do you realize that whole grains are the goal? Research shows that whole grains are better for our health and weight than refined grains, and yet the plate doesn't show that. Another missing piece is the kinds and amounts of fat that we need. There are fats that help our health (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and fats that harm our health (trans fat and saturated fat), so it can't just be left off of an icon for a healthy diet.
MyPlate is being promoted as the guide for everyone, but it isn't. There has been an increase in the number of people following vegetarian and vegan diets, but this doesn't address their needs. It would have been beneficial to have separate MyPlate icons for them. MyPlate also does nothing to teach people how to lose or control their weight. With a big enough plate and glass, you can follow the icon and still eat too many calories. You can also consume a lot of calories by the choices that you make within each of the groups. For example, you will get many more calories if you have cheese as your dairy instead of skim milk, or high-fat meats instead of lean ones, or canned fruit in syrup versus fresh fruit, and if you add fat to any of the items, your calories can even double!
Finally, by not mentioning sweets, fats, and alcohol, that does not mean that people will not consume them. The "dieting" mentality is often that a food is either good or bad. That would mean that everything on MyPlate is good and anything else is bad. The truth is that most things are allowed in moderation when we are talking about a healthy adult. If someone enjoys their sweets, then the goal would be to help them figure out how to have some without theweight gain or guilt.
The reason for the long list of limitations to MyPlate is because coming up with one icon that teaches everything about eating a healthy, balanced diet is impossible. The question remains whether having an image that gives some information helps or hurts. In the attempt to simplify things, we can sometimes create new problems. Maybe people would be more likely to learn about nutrition if they were told that an icon or image isn't enough to teach them all there is to learn. Or maybe it would help to have each food group have its own image. I think that there will be many more icons in our lifetime. For now, MyPlate is a nice visual that will work best when served with the information on http://www.ChooseMyPlate.gov.