The USDA squashed its food pyramid this week, in favor of — a plate. The new “My Plate” is a bit of a throw-back to days of simpler eating, and a welcome visual respite from the muddled “My Pyramid” of 2005 that sometimes looked more like a dietary landfill than a plan for healthy eating.
I first got up close and personal with the USDAs nutrition recommendations in elementary school in the 1960s, when eating advice consisted of a very short list of the “Four Basic Food Groups.” Oils and sugars didn’t play into the picture very much, although I probably got a decent dose of both, alternating between the chorizos and pastelitos of my Cuban family in Miami, and the fried chicken and apple pies of my Anglo relatives in New Jersey. I also got a really healthy dose of the outdoors, and was outside more than I was ever in.
Over time, the food groups became more partisan, with vegetables and fruits going their separate ways, oil rising to the top and grains holding the whole thing up on their wheaty shoulders. After my son was born in the early 1990s, I was reacquainted with nutrition in a new way. Plagued by health and development problems from the time he began eating solid foods, our little boy provided the impetus for learning about things like celiac disease and lactose intolerance. The food pyramid was cause for angst, because the very foundations of healthy eating – grains – were apparently the very thing that made my son ill.
In the course of writing my first book, the Food Allergy Field Guide: A Lifestyle Manual for Families (Savory Palate, 2006, 2nd edition), I made the acquaintance of the USDAs new pyramid, which went from fairly self-explanatory images of food to a color coded circus tent beneath a set of stairs upon which a gender neutral stick figure ascended to nowhere. It had the same visual affect as wearing horizontal stripes with vertical, and made about as much sense.
In 2005, they threw all the food down at the bottom of the rainbow, apparently to mollify those of us having trouble with the color coding. When I updated my book in 2006, I made a half hearted attempt to throw support behind the new pyramid, but when the nutrition info was cut from the appendix for printing reasons, I felt a little relieved.
I think I got the message of healthy eating across just fine in my Kitchen Zen reflections:
Now you have a food-sensitive child. Now you have to look at the food you eat. Now you have to reduce it down to the bare essentials, to its purest forms, and distilled to a non-allergenic essence of simplicity. Behold food! From the ground, from trees, from vines and marshy fields and golden meadows. It is beautiful! The textured skin of a carrot, the earthy odor of a baking potato, the fragrance of a smooth-skinned apple, the savory aroma of seasoned rice simmering quietly on the stove.
As you learn to prepare foods your food-sensitive child and your whole family can enjoy, take the opportunity to engage in a little kitchen Zen. There is elegance to pure, wholesome foods that nothing in a box or a bag can ever approach. You don’t have to be the Galloping Gourmet to appreciate that elegance, or to use your kitchen time, whether it’s daily, or just one day a week …, to regain time for yourself and for your family, and a sense of beauty and richness that will nourish you far outside the walls of your kitchen. It really doesn’t get much simpler, more nutritious or more satisfying than that.
The USDA finally seems to agree, getting back to their own dietary bare essentials with the simple elegance of a plate. No dietary hierarchies, no fancy representative clip art, no iconic walking people, no piles of food; just a plate, suggesting proportional servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. No one food has precedence over another – they all share the plate in interdependent coexistence, towards the common good of health and well-being.
To balance calories, the USDA advises simply, “Enjoy your food, but eat less” and “Avoid oversized portions.” The rest of their healthy eating recommendations are similarly common sense and simple – choose foods with lower amounts of sodium, and drink water instead of sugary drinks, among other guidance.
It’s hard to believe a government agency can simplify anything, let alone health recommendations. But the USDA seems to have done just that, and they have my kudos. Hopefully more people will take the Plate to heart, and find the joy of Kitchen Zen in their own lives.