'We are not telling people what to eat; we are giving them a guide." That's what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday as he unveiled his department's new guide for healthful eating. Here's hoping he's right. The "My Plate" insignia he displayed replaces the familiar pyramid, which was so confusing that many nutritionists said it was useless in teaching healthy eating habits.
A serviceable symbol certainly is needed. The number of obese and overweight Americans of all ages has soared in the nearly two decades since the rainbow-striped triangle was introduced.
The new guide is a circle divided into four different-sized, color-coded, sections. Segments labeled "fruit" and "vegetables" fill half the plate. Sections labeled "grains" and "protein" comprise the other half. The vegetable and grains sections are the largest of the four. A circle labeled "dairy" is adjacent to the plate. The new guide is more attractive than the pyramid. Whether it will help change U.S. eating habits remains to be seen.
There's reason to hope that it can. Certainly help is needed. About two-thirds of U.S. adults and about a third of youngsters are now either obese or overweight. That's a substantial increase in the last 20 years. It is fueled, experts say, by increasingly poor eating habits and a lack of exercise, though the former is more a factor than the latter. Vilsack and others believe the "My Plate" design can play a powerful role in combating the problem. They've mounted a campaign that is catchy and attuned to modern sensibilities to make it viable.
While the old symbol provided little direct or indirect help on what to eat, the new icon offers visual clues to healthy choices. Though the design is not meant to be proportional, it does provide a sure reference to what foods a healthy meal should contain. Ambitious use of social media - an excellent idea in this cyber-connected day and age - should enhance the utility of the nutritional guidelines.
The ultimate success of the new symbol and the nutritional information it offers rests on more than attractive design and the popularity of social media. It will require an end to political wrangling over healthy food proposals - many Republicans oppose all efforts to suggest or legislate healthy eating guidelines. They argue, incorrectly, that they are too costly. In truth, we already pay a high price to deal with the consequences of poor diet.
Changes in U.S. food marketing are needed, as well. Currently, many Americans, particularly those in poorer inner cities, find it difficult to follow healthy eating guidelines even if they want to do so. Fast food establishments and convenience stores that offer mostly high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar and salty products often are the only places in such neighborhoods to buy food. If more traditional food stores are nearby, the selection of fresh and healthy foods is usually limited and prohibitively expensive. That business model must be changed.
If the United States is to address its obesity problem successfully, more than a new icon is needed. It will require adherence to established dietary and exercise guidelines and increased availability and affordability of the foods that the "My Plate" campaign rightly indicates are essential to healthy eating. Helping Americans understand that is Vilsack's ongoing challenge.