Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Thoughts On The New USDA My Plate Guidelines

I can't help but reflect on the new USDA "My Plate" guidelines. First: bravo for finally trashing the pyramid. It was more than greatly flawed. It remained so with its equally confusing face lift not many years ago by adding a person running up the side of its face. Now we have a plate, which is at least getting us closer to an image associated with the dining table.
My Plate has a few things going for it, mainly in its visual resemblance to something we can all relate to, but remains dangerously simplistic for the public at large.

What each model has failed to recognize is the important issue of the quality of the food we choose to eat. Rewind for a moment to early Eskimo tribes of Alaska or Eastern Siberia for example. What did their "My Plate" look like? A 75% daily intake of protein and fat consisting of caribou, polar bear, fish, seal or whale meat, perhaps cooked, perhaps shaved raw from frozen bones including the animal's rich stores of fat and organs. The remaining percentage of nutrition came from a small amount of gathered tubers, berries, grasses and seaweed when seasonally available. These cultures where healthy, producing strong, round, happy babies. They did not drink electrolyte enhanced sports drinks or nibble on rice cakes. Most importantly, their lack of a modern democratic government kept them from falling victim to its agendas.

Here is the problem with our government's suggestions on what we should eat. They need us to consume the most of what they subsidize the most, and it's gotten them into a dilemma. With obesity at record levels, especially plaguing today's youth, we have a very expensive health crisis on our hands. But, how can they tell us to eat local, buy mostly produce and grass-fed meats and still hold the hand of their most powerful constituents? They can't. So as long as agriculture is dictated and funded by the US government, we will continue to see double standards like the new My Plate guideline as a means to gloss over a major political contradiction.
The dairy industry, corn/grain industry, and meat industry need the support of the government to be the colossal superpowers they are. All you have to do is look at campaigning to see where the money lies. "Beef- It's What's For Dinner," Pork- The Other White Meat," "Milk- Does A Body Good." Or how about all the famous athletes and celebrities sporting milk mustashes or gracing the front of a box of Frosted Flakes. Are these flashy advertising efforts for our health or for a profit? If the goal was in favor of the former, we may have a very different public health reality.

The food industry does not make a profit peddling broccoli, let alone diet diversity. They want us to load our carts with sodas (corn industry), lunch meat (pork, beef, poultry industry), Oreos (corn and seed oil industry), boxed cereals (corn and grain industry), and ultra-pasteurized gallons of low-fat milk (dairy industry). A diet like this will eventually kill even the most resistant individual, yet this is where the profit is made.

Who profits from a healthy individual? Not the pharmaceutical industry. Not the industries mentioned above. Not the hospitals. Not your family doctor. You may save insurance companies a ton, but then again if you are well, you may not need them. How about your dentist? Physical therapist? Mental therapist? They would all take a financial hit if you were robustly healthy. Oooh, reality bites, and yes, it all comes back to My Plate.

I will tell you what is not on my plate:
#1: My government whispering in my ear
#2: Milk from cows which stand in their waste and eat subsidized grain morning and night without ever feeling the sun on their backs, teaming with antibiotics and chemicals to keep their milk "safe."
#3: Corn syrup laden products filled to the brim with concentrated toxic pesticide residues
#4: A big pile of white rice, stripped of its original fiber, vitamins, and minerals
#5: A boneless, skinless chicken breast tender not from my clever marinade but from the animal's forced, indoor, un-exercised life of muscular atrophy.
#6: Vegetables shipped from Latin America where we still enjoy gaining a profit by selling them our "unsafe" DDT
#7: Spinach picked by underpaid, undervalued workers
#8: A color coded chart

Now for what is on my plate:
#1: Solar nutrition taken up by the grass then taken up by the animals which graze it
#2: Small fish from deep cold waters
#3: Well prepared, intact whole grains
#4: Pungent garlic, onions and spices
#5: Freedom of choice
#6: Curries rich with coconut milk
#7: Good fat
#8: Eggs from bug-eating, sun-loving chickens
#9: Flavorful vegetables full of unadulterated vitamins and trace minerals absorbed from real garden soil
#10: The occasional slug lurking on my salad leaf. . . a special treat for my hens.
#11: Fermented foods, teeming with friendly bacteria to help restore and aid digestion
#12: Seasonal, ripe, juicy fruits
# 13: Community
# 14: A moment to say Thanks before the first bite
# 15: Real patriotism
# 16: Bold flavors
# 17: Variety

In the end, the reality is: how do we help most individuals understand the importance of choosing wisely when it comes to food?
My answer would be to view government recommendations with caution. Until industries are held accountable for their products, food products should be approached carefully. I believe it unrealistic to think that each busy mom or grade-schooler can consult a chart and know what food options are best with so many forces at work to confuse them.
Those who manufacture processed, unhealthy foods which appear cheap need to be held accountable. It shouldn't be the public's responsibility to spend hours upon hours in the grocery store reading and comparing labels to ensure they are putting a worthwhile item in their cart-but it is. Soda should be heavily taxed. Oreos should carry a warning or be pulled from the shelves. We need our choices to be more trust worthy if the government is going to "okay" them for sale. If the food industry is comfortable selling us products which have been proven to negatively impact our health, we should send them to court.
When dog food and baby formula imported from China revealed toxic levels of melamine, we did what anyone in their right mind would do and discontinued imports.
Why should it be any different with other ingredients that make us sick?
In summation, the consumer is not the only one needing a lesson in what is appropriate to put on the table. I believe the vast majority of the public is doing the very best they can to stay well despite all of the many mixed messages thrown at them. I do not know a single person who enjoys being sick or overweight.

Additionally, it is impossible to claim that food and politics are unrelated. As we try our best to make the right choices, I think it's high time to expect the same from our government. Those in charge of what gets stocked on grocery store shelves need to be held accountable. I'm sure if they put their minds to it, they can give us more than a new color coded chart.

Time to rise up!


  1. I love this. Perfectly sums up my thoughts on the matter. And your plate sounds delicious! :)
    We closed on our house in Asheville 3 weeks ago - should be up there full time by August. I would love to meet up with you at some point - you so inspire me! We go to the North AVL Tailgate Market every Saturday we're in town, perhaps we can meet one Saturday. :)
    Best to you!!

  2. I am so glad you are moving to town Jen! The N. Avl tailgate is my favorite. Would love to meet. Hope the move goes smoothly. Send me an email and we can exchange info. Thanks for reading and all your support!

  3. Rachel, I your lists of what is and isn't on your plate gor me pretty pumped up. I think you should send this essay to some papers and magazines and get it in print.

  4. Here's another issue -- how do we make YOUR plate available to the average Joe? I'd love to have your plate. But I don't have the income, nor the resources, to duplicate that in a suburban/city setting. Organic is just another label here. Grass-fed is certainly not local, it's shipped in, adding cost. Chickens in the backyard are illegal. About all I could possibly do is a backyard garden, but since both adults in this family work full-time, I seriously doubt it would survive.

    Many ppl have ideals which match your plate. But our reality is so, so different.

  5. Really great questions you pose Jema!
    I was reluctant to even post what I did about what is on my plate, because this was meant to reflect more of an ideal than what is always 100% possible for everyone. My point to this whole post is that the industry should create a new standard. The standard now is unacceptable. I am not a supporter of simply spending your whole paycheck on packaged foods labeled organic, and I do recognize each household has different priorities.
    Your question: "How do you make my plate available to the average Joe?" is exactly what I am trying to address. It time for industries to take responsibility for their products by making them less harmful. It is too much work for busy individuals to self educate and sort through all of the confusion. It would be nice to see safer products affordable and available for everyone, not just the elite.

  6. I wish My Plate addressed HOW we are to eat... that is mindfully, savoring each sensation as it enters our mouths... with out external distractions.

  7. "It is not the job of the public to spend ten hours in the grocery store reading and comparing labels to ensure they are putting a worthwhile item in their cart." - Yes it is! You had me almost cheering on the inside until this part. You are the arbiter of what goes in your mouth, not the gov't, not some faceless corporation thousands of miles away. Also, I would point out that if you spend ten hours in a store reading labels, you still have it wrong. A good rule of thumb is, the less ingredients, the better. If you buy basic ingredients, no label reading, if you are reading labels on boxes, you are still buying subsidized, processed food. More legislation will not save you!!! It has been proven time and again. The best we can ask for is that they do not ban those things that we know to be good. DIY people, no one else will do it for you.

  8. Indeed Anonymous! Though mainstream eaters need some help getting here. Some of us are fortunate enough to know what is right and what is wrong to put in our mouths, but may are not. It takes time. I agree, that the things which are good for us should not be banned such as raw milk. However, I think of the family's on food stamps living below poverty level, and fear without the help of the government changing its standards, good food becomes exclusive for the privledged only. I'm not in favor of more legislation, but would welcome fewer double standards.

  9. Don't speak with your mouth all know someone on food stamps and wic. That's your farm substaties also. Do better home work here.

  10. Learning about growing food takes more time than growing food, imo&e. Get something in the ground. You will learn from it and do better next time. Keep doing it. Grow herbs in pots. Make one little change, and it opens whole new vistas. Take charge! and good luck :)

    I'm not in favor of using gov't force to make change; I'd rather see individuals taking responsibility and voting with their pocketbooks, let the market work- though we obviously do not have a free market, which is one of your major points here... still, more taxes and laws are not the answer imo.

  11. Great post- it's a crime what is in our foods and our lifestyles only perpetuate the problem. Busy here, busy there. Our lives no long resemble the Inuits with a parent staying back cooking and caring for good food from morning until night - now we're rushing from job to job (if we're lucky) and taking our children from place to place. I personally can't rely on the government to make good choices for me. I've made a commitment as a parent to do all I can to educate myself and my children on what is good for them. We're not perfect, but striving for a better, simpler life. At the end of the day if I have to scale back on something in my budget to provide for better food I will. Ultimately we have that choice.

    Even on WIC or food stamps - you can still buy foods that require preparing - which is better than fast food or food in a box. One of my closest friends, a single mom, went back to school and required the assistance of WIC - amazingly enough she managed to buy good foods for her and her daughter. It can be done, but it requires a hair of effort and it's effort well spent. She's only one example, but I have others.

    People choose ignorance because truly if they knew (or wanted to know) the truth about the companies and the practices that are behind the food in our stores and restaurants they would be mortified. They also don't want to change. You can say no to your child, they don't have to be in everything. For working parents - with preparation, good quality food can be yours with a bit of prep. We've just put food on the low part of the totem pole because you can grab and go with ease. Sorry to hijack! :D

  12. For the "How to get this to average Joe?" question, it can be done. It is easier in some cities than others, and depends largely on what kind of community there is and what the local ordinances say. My family lives in a suburban area, only a few minutes outside of Atlanta. We are a family of four scraping by on just over $30k a year. I have some rather substantial student loan payments and old medical bills that currently soak up the majority of our income, often leaving us with less than most people spend on junk food for a meal per person to eat with for a week.

    After there was a big push to change the ordinances a few years back, we can legally keep some backyard chickens. We keep a fairly large garden using a no-till method in raised beds that requires minimal effort to maintain (both adults here work, and since we can't justify daycare in our budget, we work opposite shifts so whoever is home can watch the kids, not slaving in the garden for hours). Farmers markets and CSA membership fills in the rest, but to find the best of these has taken not only a great deal of research, but scheduling.

    I'll admit, it's not nearly as simple as stopping by a grocery store and getting a frozen pizza on the way home from work, but it's been worth it in my opinion. It can definitely be done.

    1. You go, Jen! We're cheering for you over here!

  13. As with anonymous (the anonymous that can spell and form a coherent thought, not the one directly preceding me) I agree with you EXCEPT the bit about it not being the consumer's responsibility. It is absolutely our responsibility. And while the media side of food, like Nutella or Frosted Flakes advertising in a way that makes them sound healthy, makes me livid, it is NOT that hard to figure out what is healthy and what is not.

    I also think that taking companies that produce things like oreos and frosted flakes to court would be a very slippery slope. Yes, these products cause harm in the long run if consumed as more than a very occasional treat, but I think we as a country are already a little sue-happy. At what point do we stop blaming the big corporations and start taking responsibility for our own actions? If I eat a package of oreos every day and get fat I shouldn't be able to turn around and sue Nabisco for making me that way- they didn't make me eat them. And unless we want to change the entire economic system in our country, there is no way to really change the way the corporations operate EXCEPT educating consumers and expressing ourselves with our wallets. They don't make oreos because they WANT to make us all fat (I'm not saying they care, just that no one was sitting around brainstorming and said "hey, let's make America fat")- they make oreos because people BUY oreos. So it's not the government's place to come in and tell them to stop making oreos, it is our place as the consumer to stop buying them.

    And I also think that we all need to stop complaining about the high price of healthy food. Only 50 years ago it was totally average for a family to spend 25% of their income on food. Stop for a minute and figure out what 25% of your monthly take home income is. I'll bet you don't spend near that- I know I don't, even buying organic, humanely raised, local foods. However, we have become spoiled by the other things we feel we need to pay for monthly- our ridiculous credit card bills, our outrageous cell phone, cable, and internet payments... what is more important, your internet connection, or feeding your family responsibly? I know what I pick.

  14. Thank you for this reflection. I think that many are over looking the politics of responsible eating these days. Great point on $$$, Brandislee.

  15. I agree that industry needs to change. We have made it our priority to get pastured meat and chicken, raw butter and organic veges, and boy is it expensive. I know a lot of people who say that they couldn't spend what we do, and there are only two of us right now.

    Sometimes, I want the cheaper cuts of meat, but I know the more expensive grass fed is better for me. And, this is where we decide to spend our money.

    Could you imagine if doctors became health coaches instead of "fix-it" people!

    Thanks for your post!

  16. I have a different perspective on this. Everyone says buy local. I live in coastal Alaska. There is no road out, everything comes in by plane or boat. We have incredibly abundant seafood and berries. Amazingly enough, I rarely eat seafood. It is so expensive that I cannot justify it. The fishermen are getting paid premium prices at the dock, why should they sell it to me for less? I could go get my own, but then you need a boat and if you get a boat that can handle the seas instead of a floating deathtrap you have a $5-800/month boat payment plus insurance and fuel costs that can cripple even the most financially set (it is shipped in too). I live in Juneau, the capital. There is no where that you can get anything but ultra-pastuerized milk products. I dream of one day trying raw milk. On a trip I did find a farmers market in Mississippi that had pastuerized but not homogenized chocolate milk and it was sooooo good. We get last years produce. When even Fuji apples are wrinkled and turn brown within seconds of taking a bite, you know they are old. So our food choices are limited from the start. And then there is the costs. We are lucky. We only pay $6 for a gallon of organic milk. When you get out inthe rural villages, many are paying in excess of $9 per gallon for non-organic milk. When you go in the villages, you can see baby bottles filled with Coke, because its cheaper, and there is no food education. Then you have the well meaning state, who goes out and distributes free soy formula. I think its a toss up which is worse, soy formula or coke. We cant even figure out what is healthy eating to teach. I know my views and they follow most on this blog, but I have ultra healthy friends who barely eat meat, drink soy milk, eat no fat or salt, and have poor health. I watch people "eating healthy" by buying organic oreos. Outside the cities up here, many are drinking canned milk or powdered milk, powdered eggs and at least real good meat from hunting. Vegetable are rare unless they get good air service. It was interesting to talk to a woman from Kotzeue. She gets her organic produce flown in from a CSA in Seattle as it is cheaper and fresher and comes in bulk. These are other considerations that the new "My Plate" doesnt take into consideration.

    Sorry for the rant.

  17. Great thoughts all!
    I want to make sure you all understand that I agree each consumer has to take their personal health into their own hands. Absolutely. Unfortunately, agribusiness has taken over the vast majority of this nation's food supply, advertises freely, and hopes to hide much of how it is operated from the public, and has the $$ to do so. With the government making it their business to hand us guidelines, I find it frustrating what they allow on the shelves while telling us to stay healthy and fit. If they decided not to give us guidelines, and clearly stated "to each their own," it would be a different story.
    However, this is the reality of food today. Many of us here already are tuned into what is healthy and what is not. Sadly, the vast majority of individuals are not and fall victim to campaigning and government recommendations.
    Thank you for all the passionate responses. And yes, let's all continue to vote with our forks!

  18. I think the post was well thought out, kudos! Whomever said it above about 25% of income on food, that's us! That is because we currently have a small income and we have two kids. I'm tempted to lower our nutrition standards. After all, you can, with coupons, eat the junk quite cheaply, which goes back to subsidizing (and it makes me mad!). We used food stamps last year in a major pinch, which was unbelievably helpful, and I was able to use it on fresh foods, even at our co-op, which is where I would get raw milk.

    We do the best we can with what we have, like anyone. I splurge on raw milk when I can (at $7 a half gallon, it's a splurge but I'm so happy I can get it at all!) I buy grass fed butter and yogurt, at a reasonable price at Trader Joe's, but grass fed meat and some organic produce is out of the price range at the moment (I haven't been to the farmer's market yet but since I live near one now I plan to go). I am learning about gardening so that next year I can tackle that in the community garden, and I use as many coupons as I can without compromising health standards. To save money I shop at three different grcoery stores and buy what's on sale at each one. It's possible, with effort and learning (thanks to blogs like this)to make it work! We can all vote with our pocketbooks in whatever measure we can.

    Side note: saw on the news how grain prices are going up and it's affecting the price of meat. I yelled at the tv: ever heard of feeding an animal GRASS?! lol.

  19. some people call eating their community cannibalism.

  20. I'm so thankful my friend Natalie @ shared this tonight! Just the kind of read we all need :)

  21. Another piece worth bringing up is that adults are more likely to make healthy eating choices if they have positive experiences as children with preparing and eating healthy food. We as adults- as parents, mentors, teachers, government officials, whomever- are responsible for providing these experiences for the children in our lives. Family and neighborhood experiences are the most important, I think. However, some children, for a plethora of reasons, are not having experiences with healthy eating in their homes and communities. I think the USDA should continue to expand its support of school programs which provide higher quality food in the schools and teach both the educators and the students about healthy eating and exercise. Thankfully, some school gardens and farm-to-school programs are beginning to get the support they need to hopefully become standard parts of our children's childhood experience. If you care about this topic, I encourage you to support your community's school garden programs.
    Thank you for this thought provoking forum, Rachel.

  22. Just as dairy farmers are slowly switching to organic to meet consumer demand and willingness to pay higher prices, so might ...someday!... meat farmers respond to consumers asking -- at their local market, at Costco! -- for more organic, pastured animal products, meat and organs!

  23. I agree with most of what you are saying, but I don't think that it is the government's job to nudge us into making the right decisions... so I disagree with heavily taxing soda. They could probably achieve similar ends if they would stop subsidizing their pet agricultural products (stop subsidizing corn, soda companies would have to raise prices or change their formula).

    The government being in our business is mostly what is making us unhealthy in the first place. They need to get out entirely. It is our job as we the people to do what we can to tell others about health. If the government wasn't telling us how to eat, then they wouldn't be drowning out the voices of the people that have a clue.

  24. Very well said! I fear the oncoming health crisis - all of Americas children will be obese smokers with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. How the mighty have fallen...

  25. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  26. Outstanding post! Thank you so much for sharing this!

  27. I am personally a person who utilizes food stamps and WIC (actually I am in VT and this is the last state in which they deliver WIC to my door instead of having me pick it up at the supermarket). I do have an advantage since I grew up in a household with parents that owned a health food store, but I have found that I can afford to have fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grain items without going too over budget. I wish that more local farmers could take food stamps, I looked for a CSA that did this year, but to no avail. They are just starting to accept food stamps at Farmer's Markets, so that is a step in the right direction. I wish I could afford to buy local meat, organic foods, and such but it just isn't a possibility for me. So, I eat as good food as I can within my means. Right now I am eating strawberries out of my own garden and I am growing as many veggies as I can. I am expanding my garden by pulling up the sod from my front yard. I have a feeling this summer I will be harvest more organic vegetables than my family can eat. I've gotta learn to can so that I can benefit from this during the winter too.

    I agree with people saying that it is not the governments job to inform us about what is healthy to eat, but I do appreciate the information they have out there about whole grains and other healthy choices. It is too bad that they don't have similar information out there informing us of grass fed beef and raw milk. However, I think if people are interested in making sure they are healthy they will do the research on their own, and posts like this one go a long way in informing the public. Unfortunately, many people just don't care enough about their own health. Perhaps we could, and should, encourage organizations that support REAL healthy eating to do more active education, like billboards and such.

  28. Well said all! And I agree with those of you who wish the government was less involved. I think this is what ruffled my feathers in the first place. I am opposed to advice from the government when they appear to be at the root of many of the problems with the food system.
    I am very glad to hear how many of you are able to choose healthy foods with food stamps, they were a great help to my family as I was growing up.
    Miriam- I appreciate your statement: "So, I eat as good food as I can within my means." This is the very essence of doing the best we can for ourselves. Thank you for sharing.

  29. Just discovered your blog through this post. Thanks so much for sharing! Everything you've said here is very right-on, and until we give up thinking we're "too busy" or not well off enough to eat good, non-processed foods, we're not going to get any better. Truly, last night it took me less than 30 minutes to steam some real broccoli and cook a chicken breast for dinner. And I spent about what I'd have spent on a garbage meal at McDonalds.

    Thanks for adding your say to re-orienting our food thinking!

    Lynne @ Jesus-Based Health

  30. Great post! Aren't "what is" and "what is not" on my plate lists inverted?

  31. Extremely well-put! Found this link via Musings of a Housewife. It's ridiculous and sickening to think of how much of what we eat as a culture has been determined simply by politics, not for any good reason such as availability, location, or nutrition.

  32. The concept of "who profits" really is at the core of this problem. And the huge corporate interests involved devote crazy resources to protecting those profits; the USDA could never win the war against junk and processed food. The only solution I see (for me) is separating from that food system completely. The more of us who make that choice, the more of a stir we'll make. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  33. All the points are really descriptive, inspirational and informative. Thanks for the post.

  34. New to your page, found you through Jenny at Nourished Kitchen. What a terrific post and reading through all the various comments was equally compelling. I am really happy to have found you and look forward to following your blog! Keep up the great work – you are a blessing! :) Kelly

  35. Let me agree with Dana, this is a lucid argument and I hope you'll take the time to cross-post it as a guest blog or article anywhere and everywhere you can. Edited for length (I guess!) it would be excellent as a guest editorial for the Asheville Citizen-Times.

    Thanks Rachel.