Harvard vs. USDA–Dishing Out Controversy Over Dietary Guidelines

October 4, 2011

By Rachel Perez, RD

After nearly 20 years of guiding dietary recommendations, the food pyramid has been replaced with a plate, and now thanks to Harvard, with the choice of two plates.  Who knew that a simple switch in shape would launch debate in the nutrition and food policy community?

Let’s review.  In June 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced MyPlate as a new national symbol for healthful eating.  MyPlate, along with its historic predecessors MyPyramid and the Food Guide Pyramid, are icons based on the Dietatary Guidelines, which are the government’s nutrition recommendations for Americans.  MyPlate was novel in its simplicity—a characteristic which garnered mixed reviews among nutrition professionals.

Harvard also had their reservations.  Last month the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) unveiled their Healthy Eating Plate, a direct challenge to MyPlate’s shortcomings.  In a press release Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the HSPH, justified Harvard’s plate saying, “Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.”  USDA has not provided commentary.

Choose Your Serving

Which plate more clearly communicates dietary recommendations?  The votes are divided.  Critics have termed Harvard’s verbose version “nutritionally annoying,” while others cite MyPlate as too simplistic.  In a recent discussion among Friedman Nutrition Communication students, some sided with Harvard, acknowledging that consumers need specific food instructions to guide mealtime and shopping decisions.  Other students defended MyPlate, citing it as a reference point.

Parke Wilde, PhD, Associate Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition thinks that MyPlate does quite well.  He notes, “The graphic is spare, and the accompanying text is to the point.  Taken together, I can see why they chose this as an improvement to MyPyramid.”

More importantly, Parke adds, “The real question is, does each graphic correctly reflect the balance of evidence from nutrition science?”

Points of Contention

Both the USDA MyPlate and the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate are visual blueprints for constructing a healthy meal, emphasizing a balance of food groups.  Yet nutrition recommendations still differ.

Variations in the Harvard plate include specific guidelines for protein, a sizeable jug of healthy oils, and recommendations for physical activity.   While both versions encourage fruits and vegetables, Harvard takes an extra step to clarify that “potatoes and French Fries don’t count.”

The major difference is in the beverages, not the food.  MyPlate displays a dairy portion, which many people interpret as milk, while Harvard has a water glass.   Why the switch?  Harvard makes no pointed accusations, but hints on their website that the Healthy Eating Plate, “was not subjected to political and commercial pressures from food industry lobbyists.”

Should we be concerned about pressure from food industry (such as the diary industry) and its influence in governmental nutrition standards?

According to Timothy Griffin, PhD, Associate Professor and program director of the Agriculture Food and Environment program at Friedman, “It is a fairly common strategy to indicate that USDA is subject to food industry pressure.  This may result in bias, and be further used to support an alternative approach or strategy.”  He acknowledges that while pressure and resulting bias may exist, documentation would be preferred.  “It is not clear from the press release which industries are implicated.”

Wilde points out that the USDA invited and published comments from all public interest groups during the formation of the Dietary Guidelines.  “Given this amount of input, a smoke filled room would be beside the point,.”   Written comments are available for public viewing.

But set aside the food quibbles.  Stacked together, the USDA and Harvard plates point to larger policy and communication problems.

Matching Plate with Policy

Both the USDA and Harvard icons promote “half the plate for fruits and vegetables,” but can US agricultural policy back this recommendation?   There has been recent support for research on fruits and vegetables.  “However, policy—and the resultant flow of dollars—directly supports only a few crops such as corn, soy, cotton, sugar, and wheat,” adds Griffin.  “The issue is that there is not alignment between the agricultural policy and the nutrition policy.”

Jeanne Goldberg, PhD, RD, Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition, was involved with the original formation of the USDA Food Guide Pyramid.  She sees a larger communication crisis at stake: “Americans don’t understand the dietary guidelines.  It’s not a matter of which plate is better, or a discussion of symbols; it goes beyond that.”

Certainly no single icon—whether pyramid, or plate—can effectively portray every nutrition message, let alone change behavior.

To the casual observer, the USDA vs. Harvard plate controversy may amount to mere academic banter or wholesome collegiate competition.  But for nutrition professionals, the plates offer a sobering challenge. Dishing out nutrition messages requires both appropriate policy to back food recommendations, along with clear nutrition communications.

*Picture images from: www.choosemyplate.com and www.hsph.harvard.edu

Rachel Perez wants to savor her last semester as a Nutrition Communications MS student.  She is a Registered Dietitian, enjoys writing, and likes to tinker in the kitchen.   Find her musings at Coconut Crumbs blog.

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