By Pam Linn

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My Plate not to everyone’s taste

As graphics go, the USDA’s new, sectioned dinner plate is probably an improvement over the old food pyramid. That is if visual clarity is the criterion. A new take on the old pie chart made to look like a rather colorful plate with contrasting sections showing the preferred percentage of foods from basic groups.

The basic food groups, however, aren’t what they were. Meat, poultry and fish, once a large category, has been replaced by the protein food group, which now includes nuts and seeds. Nuts used to be lumped with oils and fats, which, along with sugars, no longer belong to a group.

A welcome change reflects a larger percentage for fruit and vegetables, half the plate, the other half divided between grains and proteins. Dairy has a small circle of its own, just where the milk glass would be in a traditional place setting.

I’m already seeing some difficulties. For those of us who prefer a plant-based diet, protein comes from beans and legumes, whole grains, tofu and faux milk, which can be made from soybeans, rice, coconut, almond, hazelnut or hemp. Most, except two brands of almond milk, contain amounts of calcium equal to the bovine variety and some protein.

The bigger problem with the new graphic is lumping all grains into one food group as though they were equal, which they definitely are not. Whole grains contain their original bran, germ and endosperm and include brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, oats and whole wheat bread. They’re nutritious in ways refined grains aren’t. White rice, white bread, pancakes, waffles, pasta, pie and pizza crust, crackers and almost all ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, the stuff of most Western diets, are basically devoid of fiber and other nutrients lost in the refining process. Hence the addition of B vitamins to “enriched” breads and cereals. Fiber is not added back.

This information exists on the USDA Web site but wading through pages of food choices can be daunting. Buried among the redundancies is the recommendation: Try to get half of your grain intake from whole grains. Also it cautions: Products with added bran or bran alone (e.g. oat bran) are not necessarily “whole grain” products.

And what is cornmeal doing with the whole grains? If true whole grain cornmeal actually exists, I defy anyone to find it in a supermarket. That leads to the discussion of whether corn should be listed under vegetables or grains. For my money, corn is a sugary starch and a tough one to digest at that.

If you click on Interactive Tools, you find that My Plate is based on recommendations by Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the most recent version of which was released in January 2011.

Under these guidelines, the preferred daily amount of dietary fiber is 14 grams per 1,000 calories. That’s 28 grams for the average diet of 2,000 calories a day. If your daily caloric intake is 1,500 to 1,800 calories, you have to do the math.

My Plate has apparently given up on the portion size known as “serving,” which nutrition labels are required to use. So trying to figure out how much of a given food you should eat is a challenge. If “household units” and “ounce equivalents” mean anything to you, either you’re way ahead of the rest of us or you work for the USDA.

Try this: “Count the number of ounce equivalents of all meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds eaten. If the total equals more than the suggested intake from the protein group (which ranges from 2 ounce equivalents at 1,000 calories to 7 ounce equivalents at 2,000 calories and above) then count them [beans] as part of the sub group in the vegetable group.” Huh?

Another conflict with nutrition labels is that they measure protein and fiber in grams and servings in cups. We’re supposed to make the conversion to ounce equivalents? Nobody who has a life will do this.

According to the guide, protein foods equal “all foods made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts and seeds.” If this includes those highly processed bars, the only protein content of which is isolated soy protein, we’re all doomed. Remember, Ronald Reagan ruled ketchup a vegetable.

My respects to Michele Obama, who supports efforts to combat obesity and improve nutrition for children. But I sense the heavy hand of the processed food industry in all this; not to mention the National Dairy Council, the National Corn Growers Association, beef, pork, poultry producers and the rest. They all had their way with the original Food Pyramid of the early 1980s, which morphed into My Pyramid, with vertical instead of horizontal divisions and a cute figure racing up steps to remind us to exercise.

Now, My Plate, at a reported cost to taxpayers of $2 million, is the go-to authority on nutrition. As long as you stay away from the Web site guidelines, which will flummox even the most avid health nut.

The numerically challenged would do better to read Michael Pollan’s books, even the tiny “Food Rules,” or reliable newsletters such as “Environmental Nutrition” and “Nutrition Action,” which are not beholden to industry groups.

Then remember to enjoy what you eat and keep walking. And maybe use a smaller plate.