As you know, the USDA unveiled its new Food Plate this week. It’s based on the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines, which of course promote eating grains while restricting fat intake even more than previous guidelines. By pretending to be a politically-connected lobbyist, I was able to schedule an interview someone at the USDA about the Food Plate.
Fat Head: Before we get into the supposed benefits of the new Food Plate, I have a question about the cost. I read online that the federal government spent $2 million developing this thing. How is that even possible?
USDA: Well, with the economy being what it is, the word came down that our original request for $4 million just wasn’t going to happen. So we tightened our belts and got it done. We’re very proud of that.
Fat Head: Let me try asking that again. I’ve seen the plate, and I’m pretty sure my wife could’ve designed it in PhotoShop or Illustrator in maybe an hour. I made an entire documentary for a fraction of what you spent on a drawing of a plate. So as a taxpayer, I’d like to know why it required $2 million of our money to have someone draw a circle and divide it into four parts.
USDA: You’ve clearly never worked in government. The new Food Plate wasn’t drawn by some solo artist. There was a huge team involved.
Fat Head: I see. So each member of the team drew a little bit of the circle?
USDA: Not after the first four attempts failed to produce an actual circle. We finally ended up outsourcing that part of it.
Fat Head: Back to my original question, then. Why the heck did it cost $2 million to draw a circular plate and divide it into four parts?
USDA: It’s not just a plate. There’s a fork to the left of it. And if you look carefully at the plate, you’ll see the four parts aren’t all equal in size. That took some work.
Fat Head: Yes, I noticed the sections for grains and vegetables are a bit larger than the sections for protein and fruits. I assume this was based on peer-reviewed clinical research that suggests those specific ratios produce the best health outcomes?
USDA: Actually, it’s based on our own observation that if we divided the plate into four equal sections, looking at it made us want to order a pizza. The lobbyist for Domino’s liked that design, but the rest of us decided it promoted the wrong message. So it was back to the drawing board.
Fat Head: I’m still not seeing where the $2 million went.
USDA: Well, there’s a lot more to it than just producing the artwork. We also spent months working with focus groups and conducting research. It was very complicated.
Fat Head: And the result of all those months of focusing and researching and spending $2 million on complicated issues was a plate reminding people to eat fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and some low-fat dairy products.
USDA: That’s right.
Fat Head: In the 1940s, the USDA created a “Food Wheel” with seven food groups. The recommendation was that Americans eat from all the food groups every day, in these proportions:
- One serving of green or yellow vegetables
- One serving of citrus fruits, tomatoes, or cabbage
- One serving of potatoes or other vegetables
- Three to four cups of whole milk
- One or two servings of meat, eggs or fish
- One serving of bread or cereal
- Butter or fortified margarine at every meal
Judging by the pictures I’ve seen from that era, obesity wasn’t a big problem, and I know for a fact we didn’t have an epidemic of type 2 diabetes like we do now. So why didn’t the USDA just go back to that wheel instead of coming up with a new plate?
USDA: Well, clearly the excessive amounts of meat, eggs, milk and butter in the 1940s diet would cause obesity and diabetes.
Fat Head: But—
USDA: And what if someone chose the extra vegetable instead of the potato? Now you’re down to one serving of bread or cereal for your total daily intake of starch. With so few carbohydrates in your diet, you wouldn’t have the energy to do anything.
Fat Head: I see. That would explain why Americans in the 1940s and 1950s had such a reputation for being lazy.
USDA: Besides, people don’t eat their meals from wheels. We eat meals from plates. If we want dietary guidelines people can actually understand, they have to look like a plate.
Fat Head: You don’t think most Americans understood the guidelines you’ve been putting out every five years starting in 1980?
USDA: Of course not. Look at the rise we’ve seen in obesity and diabetes since then. Obviously, people weren’t following our guidelines.
Fat Head: And instead of concluding that your guidelines were wrong, you decided the real problem is that the average American is stupid?
USDA: I’m afraid that’s– why are you banging your head on my desk?
Fat Head: Habit.
USDA: I’m sensing you don’t agree with our conclusions.
Fat Head: You’re unusually perceptive for a government bureaucrat.
USDA: Well, I didn’t want to do this, but I guess it’s necessary. JOE! Hey, Joe! Can you come in here, please?
USDA: Joe, say hello to Mr. Fat Head.
Joe: Hey, how you doing?
Fat Head: Very well, thanks.
USDA: Joe here is a perfectly average adult American male. He’s five-foot-nine, weighs 191 pounds, and is $16,635 in debt, not including his mortgage. Go ahead, ask him anything you want.
Fat Head: Okay … Joe, are you familiar with this picture?
Joe: Sure! That’s the Food Pyramid.
Fat Head: Right. Do you understand it?
Joe: I think so, yeah.
Fat Head: But you don’t use it as the model for your diet?
Joe: We tried, but it’s way too hard.
Fat Head: Really? How so?
Joe: We just can’t get our meals to keep that shape. I mean, putting a bunch of cereal and bread at the bottom, that’s no problem. We can even pile some fruits and vegetables on top of the grains without any trouble. But then you start trying to add on that layer of cheese, yogurt, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, plus a bottle of milk, and you can pretty much bet it’ll all come tumbling down. Even if it you balance everything perfectly, dripping the oil on top is just plain lousy for frying. We’d end up scorching the grains in the pan and then say, “Aw, heck with it! Let’s go out for french fries and ice cream.”
Fat Head: I can see how that would happen. How about this new Food Plate?
Joe: Oh yeah, I totally get that. Did you notice it’s shaped just like a plate?
Fat Head: I did, yes. But are you actually going to look at this plate and then change how you eat?
Joe: I’ve got to be honest, it’ll be a tough adjustment. I’m right-handed, and as you can clearly see there, the fork is supposed to go on the left now. But I’ll make the switch if that’s what it takes to be healthy.
Fat Head: That’s not quite what I’m asking. Let me rephrase. Newspapers, magazines, TV shows and the internet are already jam-packed with doctors and nutritionists telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Why do you need a picture of a plate to help you grasp that advice?
Joe: Say what?
Fat Head: I said, Why do you need a picture of a plate to—
Joe: No, the first part.
Fat Head: Newspapers, magazines, TV shows and the internet are already jam-packed with doctors and nutritionists telling us to eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
Joe: You’re freakin’ kidding me!
Fat Head: Uh … well …
Joe: Now you tell me! Jeez, Mister, look at this gut on me! If only someone would’ve taken that advice 20 years ago and turned it into a nice picture of a plate, I’d still fit into my wedding suit!
Fat Head: I was kind of under the impression you were already familiar with the advice.
Joe: No way!
Fat Head: I was also under the impression that you’d probably look at this plate for about two seconds, then go back to eating however you want.
Joe: Well, now that you mention it, I was more comfortable holding my fork in my right hand …
Joe: But I won’t. I’m going to start doing exactly what the Food Plate tells me.
USDA: Thank you, Joe. You can leave now. There, you see? It’s just like Secretary Vilsack said at the unveiling of the Food Plate: Americans need to understand quickly how to have a balanced and nutritious meal.
Fat Head: Which means filling more than one-quarter of their plates with grains every time they eat?
Fat Head: And if they do that, they’ll end up as lean as people were back in the 1940s, when the USDA recommended just one serving of grains per day, along with three or four glasses of whole milk and plenty of butter?
USDA: Right, because— uh … you know, you really shouldn’t go around banging your head on solid objects like that.