U.S. News

Diet Experts Push More Plants, Less Meat in Nod to Environment

Nutrition panel also makes recommendations on coffee, cholesterol consumption

By Tennille Tracy

Updated Feb. 20, 2015 1:00 a.m. ET

U.S. dietary guidelines, the government’s benchmark for balanced nutrition, have long advised Americans to eat dark, leafy greens. Now, there is another way the standards could be going green.

A panel of nutrition experts recruited by the Obama administration to help craft the next set of guidelines, to be issued this year, said in long-awaited recommendations Thursday that the government should consider the environment when deciding what people should eat.

The panel, in a departure from a decades-old recommendation, also said dietary cholesterol was no longer a big concern: It scrapped guidance that Americans limit their cholesterol intake to no more than 300 milligrams a day—less than that found in a couple of eggs.

The panel said consuming three to five cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It endorsed the idea that moderate amounts of alcohol were beneficial for some people.

Generally speaking, the environmental focus means endorsing a diet that includes limited amounts of meat and more plant-based foods, while also encouraging the consumption of seafood whose stocks aren’t threatened.

“Addressing this complete challenge is essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations,” the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of roughly a dozen academics and nutrition experts, said in its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The guidance will be used by those departments to revise the dietary guidelines, issued by the federal government about every five years and represented as color-coded food groups on a plate. The MyPlate symbol replaced the food pyramid in 2011.

After two decades, the federal government has decided to serve nutrition advice on a plate instead of a pyramid.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the plate-shaped icon Thursday to replace the pyramid that often was criticized as confusing. The plate's sections show the recommended food groups, with fruits and vegetables taking up half the dish.

The plate, which follows the government's revised nutrition guidelines released in January, won praise from nutrition advocates and food industry groups. "People don't eat off a pyramid, they eat off a plate," said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago.

The USDA's first version of the food pyramid came out in 1992. With carbohydrates such as bread and spaghetti occupying a band along the base, it gave far less space to fruits and vegetables. It also suggested eating fats "sparingly," which nutritional experts said ignored the benefits of foods with healthier forms of fat.

When the government updated the advice in 2005, a new icon omitted specific portion advice, but the pyramid persisted. It left many people baffled as to what the government was trying to convey.

The new icon seeks to clarify: Fruits and vegetables should make up half the diet, with vegetables taking up a majority of the half. Grains and proteins (meat and fish, for example) should occupy the other half, with grains taking up a majority of that half.

Like the new guidelines, the plate stresses balanced portion sizes for Americans, who only grew more obese since the government's food pyramid debuted.

The USDA has been issuing dietary guidance for more than a century, but until 1992 it didn't have a standard icon to display the advice. One graphic from the 1980s called the Food Wheel bears some resemblance to the new plate, showing a pie chart with slices representing each of the major food groups.

More detailed advice is available in the full nutrition guidelines at ChooseMyPlate.gov. The guidelines say people should avoid processed foods that are heavy in salt, drink water instead of sugary drinks, and step up fish consumption while depending less on red meat.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has sought to make childhood obesity her signature cause, helped to introduce the plate in Washington. "This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating, and as a mom I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country," Mrs. Obama said.

The overall cost of the initiative was approximately $2.9 million over a three-year period, a USDA spokeswoman said.

Food companies applauded the new symbol and stressed their efforts to put healthier products on grocery shelves. "The new MyPlate icon is certainly more practical and intuitive than the previous My Pyramid icon," said Juli Mandel Sloves, a spokeswoman for Campbell Soup Co.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group that sometimes tussles with the food industry, called the plate a "huge improvement over the inscrutable food pyramid."

"It likely will shock most people into recognizing that they need to eat a heck of a lot more vegetables and fruits," said the center's Margo Wootan. "Most people are eating about a quarter of a plate of fruits or vegetables, not a half a plate as recommended."

The new USDA icon makes no mention of meat specifically, but American Meat Institute Foundation President James Hodges said beef, pork and poultry are "some of the most nutrient-rich foods available." The plate graphic, he said, "affirms the role that meat and poultry play in a healthy diet, while emphasizing underconsumed food groups."

—Katherine Hobson contributed to this article.

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