More healthy eating tips to add to the USDA food plate

The USDA has recently released it’s new concept, the food plate, to replace the iconic food pyramid it introduced in 1992 (and modified in 2005).

At its release, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack criticized the food pyramid for being “too complex to serve as a quick and easy guide for American families” – I completely agree, and have always felt this way.  The food pyramid was the kind of thing you could completely forget after browsing – that, or leave with the message “eat lots of carbohydrates” (a terrible recommendation for most, in my eyes) – far from ideal.

Michelle Obama asked, “What’s more simple than a plate? I’m confident that families … can start using this today.“  Without a doubt, the visual cue of a plate is far more useful than the old pyramid – people can now use the USDA guidelines as they prepare meals, whereas before they were essentially given seemingly arbitrary goals to meet each day (which were not only quickly forgotten, but difficult to keep track of).

In my opinion, there are still problems with some of USDA’s suggestions, but there may never be consensus on such matters.  I also take issue with the fact that the only advice I can find on portion control is “Avoid oversized portions.”

I submit to you the “Tip of the Day” I found when I visited the MyPlate website while drafting this article:

Consider convenience when shopping. Buy pre-cut packages of fruit (such as melon or pineapple chunks) for a healthy snack in seconds.

I would actually argue the contrary – convenience should be avoided when shopping, as seeking it will usually pull you away from unadulterated, healthy choices, and towards commercialized, overpriced junk.  The above tip may be fine for a family with superfluous income, but items like pre-cut fruit and 100-calorie packs are usually overpriced and are just not what most families should be buying.  Eating healthy does take a bit of work, and we shouldn’t shy away from that (portion control, in particular, is an area where we would be wise to avoid having food corporations make decisions for us).

The above considered, I thought this would be a good time to share some of my own tips for healthy eating.  These are my bare-bones recommendations:

  • No soda/pop, juice drinks, sports drinks, or fruit juices. This is #1 because I firmly believe it’s the best thing Americans can do for their health:  stop drinking your calories!  Drink water, milk, unsweetened tea or coffee, and eat fresh fruit instead of drinking juice (which is in most cases just as bad as soda).  I also believe we should be avoiding artificially-sweetened beverages, but this will be reserved for a future article (baby steps).
  • Eat more fiber. Since before I even began my formal medical education, when people would ask me the one thing they could do to improve their diet, my answer was always fiber.  Fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol, control blood sugar levels, and help with weight loss and bowel health.  Research on fiber and colon cancer has been thus far equivocal, but I strongly suspect a protective effect will be revealed in the future.
  • Eat protein at every meal. Like fiber, protein will help you feel satisfied after a meal (so will fat, as it slows the rate at which your stomach empties!).  Protein does not necessarily have to come from meat or eggs – beans, nuts, certain grains, and dairy are great sources of protein for those who avoid meat.  As a bonus, protein is more energetically costly to digest, giving it a higher Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
  • Use only natural fats & oils. Information about hydrogenated oils being linked to poor heart health has been well-disseminated, but they have also been linked to other health conditions including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression – we would do well to avoid them whenever we can.  Use real butter, olive oil, sesame oil, etc. and eat natural fatty foods (real peanut butter, plain dark chocolate, avocados, etc.).  One of my biggest pet peeves is low-fat peanut butter:  natural peanut butter (or better, almond butter) can be a good source of healthy fats, while reduced fat peanut butter is a good source of nothing (it’s processing essentially removes its health benefits and replaces them with fillers and sugar).

Don’t mistake the critical eye of the above paragraphs as disapproval – I think this overhaul is a step in the right direction and was long overdue.  Time will tell if American families will respond better to this educational tool than its predecessors.

James Haddad is a medical student who blogs at Abnormal Facies.

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  • Franki

    “Eat a wide variety of whole foods in as close to their natural state as possible.”

    This guideline from La Leche League has served me well since my kids were babies 40 years ago. It’s simple and easy-to-remember. Long ago I added two more criteria: local and organic.I suppose one could argue that those are implicit in the original.

    • Jim

      I think that’s great advice, Franki, though going all-organic is not realistic for most families. It helps to know which types of produce are “worth” buying organic over others. I mention it in one of my other articles (which contains advice from Michael Pollan I’m sure you’d agree with as well):

      The FDA also just released its own appraisal of relative contamination levels:

      • Franki

        Thanks, Jim. Good caveat. I certainly consider price. And generally put local before organic. I’m lucky to live where it’s easy to get plenty of both all summer, but in the winter, I’m glad for food shipments.

        I consider this a guideline — not an all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-none commandment. Every choice is influenced by who, what, when, where, and how much — albeit guided by the principle.

        And yes, I think Polan’s got it right on food in the United States.

  • Melanie Lane MD

    Excellent post. When people tell me they’re too busy to pack lunches or plan healthy snacks, I ask, “What’s more convenient than a whole apple or banana? They even come with their own wrappers.” There are a number of simple alternatives to a bag of chips or Skittles. There is minimal effort involved in packing a half cup of blueberries or quarter cup of almonds in a tupperware container. All it takes is a few minutes forethought.

    I agree – “convenient snack packs” are expensive and just generate more non biodegradable trash.

  • J. Ram Ray

    Here are guidelines easier than what USDA’s:
    1. Always eat fresh – never canned – the only food good frozen is icecream!
    2. Given a choice, always choose vegeterian or fish over meat! If you must eat meat, choose farm raised or free-range!
    3. No fried foods – except occasional treat!
    4. Eat sesonal fruit and vegetables – less expensive and fresher!
    5. Avoid fast food – for a quick snack or meal, try fruit, dry fruit, nuts and/or yogurt.
    6. Avoid hurried eating – a good meal may take over half hour.
    7. Eat enough to make hunger go away – not until you feel full!

  • Dorothy Green

    I would like to add to J. Ram Ray’s comments that I know of nothing nutritionally wrong with frozen organic fruit, vegetables or wild fish. Of course, local bought, organic, biking or walking to a farmer’s market is ideal, but I think frozen (without salt or sugar is second best).

    Also, some really excellent fruits – bananas, pineapple – and a lot of nuts are generally not local to most people in US. These are some of the beauties of a modern, global economy. Cacao, is full of antioxidants but can only be grown in tropical climates (not the place to discuss the “ugly dark side of chocolate).

    Most “fresh fish” in markets say, previously frozen – so they thaw and sell it as fresh for a few days – ugh!. So buy it frozen. Just ask and you can buy an entire fillet – or shop Big Box stores for individually wrapped frozen fillets. The absolutely best is to catch it yourself or get it when the boat lands and cook it within a few hours.

    Many fruits and vegetables can be grown locally in one way or another that are not because Big Ag controls the USDA and instead of helping with local efforts to improve nutrition pushes back as it would interfer with corporate profits.

    Re: Animal protein. Small amounts yes. US consumes twice as much as RDA. You say “farm raised or free range”. I think you mean “pasture raised”. The “free range” thing means animals get a bit of exercise going outside their cages to eat their mass grown corn and soy, but still do not eat what their DNA was designed for. It is not easy to find “pasture” animal meat and it is more expensive.

    Always remember that the US gov’t has subsized Big Ag for many, many years – through a number of adminstrations, to keep unhealthy food cheap through subsidizes. Most people still don’t know this and regardless of political party, this is one area taxpayers should all insist upon changing.

    • Jim

      Thanks for your input, Dorothy – you raised some good points.

      I agree with you on your point about frozen fruits & veggies. And even if not ideal, they’re still a better choice than lots of the pseudo-foods you’ll find on the shelves.

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