The USDA Explains ‘My Plate’

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?

Joe: Yes?

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 …

USDA: Joe!

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?

USDA: Exactly.

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.

[Addendum:  my comedian friend (and former partner in The Slagle-Naughton Report) Tim Slagle wrote a good take on the new My Plate.]

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64 thoughts on “The USDA Explains ‘My Plate’

  1. Amy Dungan

    LOL I’m thinking you should buy a helmet for these interviews. If you bang your head too much, brain damage could set in and you might start thinking like the USDA, and then where would you be?

    I decided to make my own plate. I like it much better. 🙂

    Your plate looks like my breakfast. I guess if I bang my head often enough, I’ll become stupid enough to qualify for a good government job with a generous pension.

  2. Zoe Harcombe

    Oh boy – the best yet! Laughed out loud so many times I spilled my full fat cappuccino!

    “Clearly the excessive amounts of meat, eggs, milk and butter in the 1940s diet would cause obesity and diabetes.” Clearly they didn’t!

    Darwin will sort this – survival of the non-stupid!

    That would be nice, but I’m afraid stupidity tends to kill most people after the reproductive phase.

  3. Princess Dieter

    Wow. The Food Wheel. Never knew about that.

    Did they have fewer head injuries from desk-contact in the ’40?

    Yes, but apparently it’s because fewer people fainted after blood-sugar crashes.

  4. Per Wikholm

    Fantastic interview Tom!
    So at last the Swedish My Plate (or the Plate Model as we call it) has come to the USA. The Food Pyramid was also invented here in Sweden back in 1974 and it took USDA bureaucrats just 18 years to adapt it to the US public. The result: they added an extra floor to the pyramid. Now the Plate Model went official in Sweden in 1992 so this time it took the USDA 19 years to adapt it to. And geuss what…it now has 4 slices instead of 3.

    So the good news is that USDA efficency is still about the same!

    Here is a Google Translated link to the Swedish Plate model:

    I guess the good news is that in about 18 more years, we’ll import the Swedish LCHF revolution to the United States.

  5. Laurie

    Did you notice that the plate is really vegan? The dairy is literally an aside and there is some cr@p called soy’milk’ that can be substituted for voluptuous, nourishing, heart-healthy from free range mammals raw full fat milk and cream. ‘Protein’ can be TVP- textured vegetable protein and a variety of other fractionated, lab created Frankenfoods.

    In the full text of the Dietary Guidelines, they drop in the “plant-based diet” phrase several times.

  6. Mindy

    Brilliant as always, Tom. I heard a local “fitness expert” interviewed on the news the other night who was justifying the plate because Americans didn’t understand the pyramid – they thought that since oils and sugars were at the top, that meant they needed to eat more of those, and less of the “healthy whole grains.” Really?? Wow.
    I had to get in on the act and created my own plate…then my husband added his interpretation of the new plate…fun stuff!

    OMG … they really believe people thought fats were most important and grains were least important? If only that were true.

  7. Elenor

    Oh dear. When I read this:

    “So at last the Swedish My Plate (or the Plate Model as we call it) has come to the USA. The Food Pyramid was also invented here in Sweden back in 1974 ”

    I thought, OMG, now we have to invade Sweden?!?!

    But, okay, not really — if the US adopted their pyramids and plates after so very many years, I guess we can’t blame Sweden after all… {sigh} Back to blaming our own idiot overlords…

    I think we should hold Sweden blameless until they start subsidizing corn.

  8. Bullinachinashop

    I still think they’re slowly getting the message (with fingers in their ears screaming “lalalalala I can’t hear you!”). The food pyramid drawing looks like more grains, less vegetables and much less meat than the plate. But I will be ignoring it as much as all the other advice. People just don’t listen to advice they haven’t already given.

    They seem to have a made a grudging admission that we don’t need 6-11 servings of grains per day. If they ever admit we don’t need any grains at all, I’ll know I’ve died and gone to an alternate reality.

  9. Laurie

    I was laughing so hard reading your blog this m orning I nearly spewed my full fat cheesy eggs and sausage, Tom! This is the funniest take I’ve seen on the ridiculous new dinner plate. I can even picture the guy trying to pile up all that food into a pyramid! 🙂 Sharing this!

    We talk about the dinner plate on Jimmy’s show this Friday. Can’t wait to share the podcast with my friends and family.

    Were you eating your eggs and sausage from a plate? If so, be sure to squeeze them into that lower-right quadrant. I believe placement is crucial.

  10. Dave, RN

    What REALLY sad is that they are required by law to redo the food guidelines every 5 years. Huge waste of money. Every. Five. Years. It must be hard to come up with more reasons to support the grain industry that often.

    Well, you know how quickly evolution works. Human DNA must undergo major mutations every five years, and they’re just trying to keep up.

  11. Richard David Feinman

    You got me, Tom. From the headline, I thought it was a real interview but the understated style indicates that you haven’t spoken to real people from the USDA recently. Remember, the Guidelines for Americans (p. ix) says “A basic premise of the Dietary Guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily through consuming foods.” Parody that, fella.

    Rats. I was going to shoot all my nutrients directly into my veins.

  12. Dave, RN

    50-60% from carbs? 10% from fat? The Swedish model doesn’t look like Low Carb High Fat… unless I’m missing something.

    The Swedish health authorities made the same mistakes ours did. Now they’re changing their minds.

  13. Tracee

    Going from one serving a day of grains to a pile of them might explain all the gluten, wheat and corn allergies we are also seeing en masse.

    That and the fact that the mutant wheat grown today has more gluten.

  14. Jim Anderson

    The USDA guidelines say that “any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice counts as a member of the Vegetable Group” and then list beans, corn and potatoes as vegetables — so it’s not only the Grain Group that would provide carbs on a USDA-approved diet.

  15. Dave, RN

    “A basic premise of the Dietary Guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily through consuming foods.”

    That’s their shot over the bow at supplements. They’d like to eliminate those. More $$ for big pharma.

  16. Per Wikholm

    Perhaps the irony in my previous posting got lost in translation…but I certainly do NOT congratulate the US for importing the Swedish food pyramid or the plate model. If you want anything swedish – by a Volvo or something at the nearest IKEA-store (they might even have pickled hearring).

    In fact me and my wife Katarina are a part of the growing LCHF-rebellion against the evil empire of government low fat dietary advice in Sweden. We just started blogging in swenglish on

    Tom, if you read my gorilla-post there, please don´t follow the link to the full text study. I´m afraid it will make you banging your head againt the desk once more

    I’ll strap on my helmet first.

  17. Mike Hunt

    I bet if Nancy Reagan made this USDA “Plate”, you wouldn’t have said anything about it. But since it was liberal Michelle Obama, guess we had to make a blog comment about it.

    You’re kidding, right? Look up the word “libertarian” and then see if you still believe I’d want Nancy Reagan or anyone else in government heading up an expensive program with the goal of telling us how to eat.

  18. Mike Hunt

    Is this the same USDA ‘Plate’ that made Ted Kennedy overweight? LOL.

    I think Ted’s “iced tea” glass — which was filled with iced scotch — probably contributed.

  19. Stacie

    I still cannot figure out why the U.S. government feels the need/responsibility to tell Americans how to eat.

    I’m afraid it’s not part of the government mentality to ask themselves that question.

  20. Mike Hunt

    That was hilarious, Tom.

    I will say though that you’re letting your political views tarnish your low carb blog.

    Considering how much the federal government has screwed up the nutrition advice, I consider my anti-government attitude a job requirement.

  21. Firebird

    The government tells us what to eat because the corn, wheat, soy growers, etc. pay plenty of lobbyist money to tell THEM what to tell US to eat.

    Bingo. When lobbyists for various food industries are involved in creating the Dietary Guidelines, you know those guidelines aren’t about science.

  22. Julie Gayler

    Soybeans. The other other other white meat.

    I mourn all of the farms in my small town that have been destroyed by policy and the movement of this junk. That money would have been better off burning this winter to help with the energy crisis.

    Oh, and if Americans are so stupid…what are the people with SQUARE plates going to do?! Die of diabetes and/or a heart attack because of their foolish fashion choices?

    They’ll have to arrange their food carefully so it’s shaped like a circle on the square plate.

  23. Nate

    Great post! Curious to know your source for the specific serving amounts for the food wheel.

    Also, the new MyPlate’s 30% grain contribution completely ignores the existence of the US’s tropical state and territories: Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, where little to no grains have ever been grown historically (rice, perhaps? but not in the Pacific island groups). So not only do we guarantee that these places have to ship in their grain-based foods, we also ensure that they are not eating their local, traditional fare which kept them healthy for centuries prior to westernization.

    The #5 slide on this page explains the Food Wheel.

  24. Lori

    Truth to tell, the old food pyramid was confusing because there was no definition of a serving. From

    “The 2005 dietary guidelines on which MyPyramid was based, promoted fruits and vegetables and whole grains. At the 2,000 calorie level, here’s what the guidelines suggested.

    Fruit Group should provide 4 daily servings, or 2 cups.
    Vegetable Group should provide 5 servings, or 2.5 cups.
    Grain Group should provide 6 ounce-equivalents (1 ounce-equivalent means 1 serving), half of which should be whole grains.
    Meat and Beans Group should provide 5.5 ounce-equivalents or servings.
    Milk Group should provide 3 cups/servings.
    Oils should provide 24g or 6 teaspoons.
    Discretionary Calories: The remaining amount of calories in each calorie level after nutrient-dense foods have been chosen. Up to 267 calories could be consumed in solid fats or added sugars if the other requirements were been met.”

    So for fruits and veg, a serving is half a cup; for grains, meat and dry beans a serving is one ounce (it doesn’t say whether that’s volume or weight or whether the measure is before or after cooking); and the milk group serving is a cup. Got that?

    Not that I’m a fan of MyPlate (obviously), but it’s an improvement over the food pyramid and over what most people eat for breakfast (cereal, bagels, juice, etc.). Though I doubt it’ll do a bit of good.

    I predict it will be easier to understand but every bit as useless.

  25. Laurie D.

    Brilliant. My dinner tonight consisted of fresh spinach, hardboiled free-range eggs, bacon, olive oil, an entire avocado, and salt and pepper. I’ll try not to die tonight from the lack of grains.

    So you served this on a plate with a big section cut out, right?

  26. Kevin

    I was waiting to see what your response to this new bout of government nonsense is. Once again, excellent job.
    On a side note, I remember an article back in January on the notion of five fruits/vegetables a day for good health. Turns out… this is based on nothing, and furthermore the cancer deaths between people who eat five a day vs. those who don’t is statistically meaningless.

    It’s absolutely astounding how easily these studies can be peeled apart (no pun intended).

    Nothing against fruits or vegetables, but the “Eat 5” campaign was based on an assumption, not on evidence.

  27. ChrisNpiggies

    Ha ha Laurie D! That’s you thosand dollar invention idea!! Plates shaped like PAC-man!
    Well, we did have pork roast, green beans with bacon from the garden (just the beans, we didn’t plant a bacon bush, and 1 potato from our gardenfried in coconut oil and some leftover wine and candles because lightening made the power go out. No grains . But we did eat on paper plated, so we could have shaped them properly to gov’t specs.

  28. Pam

    I, too, thought this was a real interview @ first. Nice touch.

    And, I’m pretty sure my 5-year-old-Kindergarten-graduate nephew created that plate in his class this year. If only I had it trademarked…

    As an aside, Yahoo! Health does it again. Here’s another fab article for your browsing pleasure…

    It’s even worse than the last time they reviewed diets. I would LOVE to know who their “experts” were doing the reviewing & what data they were looking at!

    Once again, thanks for a good laugh!

    What a silly article. They ranked the diets based on the opinions of “experts.” That means the rankings will change depending on who you label an “expert.”

  29. Pat

    Re gluten (Tracee’s comment) – pasta and bread need high gluten flour to hold together, and we seem to be breeding our wheat for this. But lots of other recipes used to call for soft (cake) flour, and that is hard to find in the store now. The choices are mainly all-purpose (moderate gluten) and bread flour (high gluten). Whereas my grand-mother’s Christmas shortbread recipe (to die for) specifically called for cake flour. We have made so many changes in the way we cook, we just can’t compare how we eat now to how we ate then.
    Along with this, the east coast has been shoved out of wheat farming by the west – Ontario and Quebec and the Maritimes (Canada) can grow perfectly good wheat, but the strains that grow well here tend to be low in gluten. Oh, well, we do great dairy and pork and beef.
    Oh, by the way, my grandmother made it to 92, healthy almost all the way. And her diet was definitely not what they recommend.

  30. Pingback: Pimp My Plate | Jan's Sushi Bar

  31. flower of snow

    You’re missing the point intirely: You have to balance each meal out with a purple meat, an orange grain, red fruit, green veg and blue dairy. Man I’m going to get tired of waiting for my meat to turn purple before I can munch on my pile of wheat, apples, and green beans. The blue dairy was a challenge but then I remembered Boo Berry cereal turns milk blue so I’m saved!

    When I was single, my dairy products did occasionally turn blue before I threw them out.

  32. Marilyn

    You just ruined my whole day! The stupidity of the food plate was bad enough. Knowing what they spent on it. . . Grump!

    Just kidding. Thanks for the laugh.

  33. Marilyn

    Hmmmm. I think I’ll try an experiment: Use the 1940s food wheel as a guide! I’ll have to do gluten free for my one serving of cereal or bread.

    I wish the whole country would do that experiment.

  34. Ricardo

    What could be wrong with more vegetables and fruit? I would say just get rid of the grains.

    Nothing is wrong with vegetables and fruit. They’re just not the great anti-cancer fighters they’ve been made out to be.

  35. Jon

    This interview seems too funny and illogical to be taken seriously. I wasn’t even sure if this was a real interview based upon the answers to your questions, Tom. So, considering you have the history of sarcastic and witty humor, I have to ask a completely honest (and potentially stupid) question: Was this a real interview from someone from the USDA, or were you impersonating what you think they would most likely say in an interview? I just can’t stop laughing at the responses…2 million to make a circle? I made circles with my eyes closed in kindergarten.

    All in jest. But considering some of the stupid remarks we hear from government officials, I can see why it wouldn’t be obvious I was kidding.

  36. Stingray

    Forgive me for posting this here. I am new to your site and did not know where else to post it. My husband and I have made the switch (since watching “Fathead”) to high fat, high protein, loads of veggies, some fruit and very little carbs. However, we both workout extensively. All the workout sites say you need some carbs to replenish glycogen stores in the muscle. When I don’t eat any carbs (I do stick to the so-called healthy ones) at all and work out I get extremely tired. Have you run into any information regarding this in all of your research? I would love some more info into this as right now I am quite confused!

    Mark Sisson and Loren Cordain both say some people who engage in intense athletic activity need more carbs in their diets. But the carbs shouldn’t come from sugar or grains.

  37. Milton

    I guess we can score one for government transparency; the URL for the site (Choose My Plate) doesn’t even pretend to respect our ability to make good diet choices for ourselves. I guess their response to that would be to point at the awful state of health for US citizens today, which would be a good point if it wasn’t their laws, policies, and regulations that led us to this point in the first place. These are the same people who probably really do think that $2 million for a bad Warhol impersonation was money well spent.

    They’re convinced their advice is correct, which has to mean we just don’t grasp it.

  38. Ray

    Love it. You need to write a musical comedy about the USDA. Seriously 🙂

    They certainly provide no shortage of material.

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