Harvard scientists have launched their own “Healthy Eating Plate”, saying it is easier to understand, gives better advice and is more scientifically sound than the US government’s “MyPlate”. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) say their plate includes information the government one leaves out, such as whole grains are better for health than refined grains, that beans, nuts, fish and poultry are a healthier source of protein than red and processed meats, and that you don’t have to consume dairy at every meal. They suggest the government one is heavily influenced by the interests of agriculture.

MyPlate is the dietary guidance icon released in June this year by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It gives a blueprint for eating a healthy meal and aims to “revolutionize” how Americans imagine and plan their daily food intake. The main impact of MyPlate is that at least half of each “plate” of a meal should consist of fruits and vegetables. However, it appears that the Harvard scientists’ beef is with the detail of the message.

Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, told the media that:

“Unfortunately, like the earlier US Department of Agriculture Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.”

“The Healthy Eating Plate is based on the best available scientific evidence and provides consumers with the information they need to make choices that can profoundly affect our health and well being,” he added.

The scientists at HSPH say the USDA’s MyPlate is not good enough because it should tell you that:

  • Whole grains are better for your health than refined grains.
  • Some high-protein foods such as fish, poultry, beans and nuts are healthier than red meats and processed meats.
  • Some fats are beneficial.
  • Potatoes are different to other vegetables.
  • You don’t have to eat dairy at every meal: in fact there is little evidence that a high intake of dairy foods protects against osteoporosis, and a much bigger amount of evidence points to a high dairy intake being harmful to health.
  • You should limit your intake of sugary drinks.
  • Physical activity is an important part of weight control.

The HSPH researchers say in a statement that their “Healthy Eating Plate is based on the latest and best scientific evidence which shows that a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy proteins lowers the risk of weight gain and chronic disease”.

Eric Rimm, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at HSPH and a member of the 2010 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said:

“We want people to use this as a model for their own healthy plate or that of their children every time they sit down to a meal — either at home or at a restaurant.”

If you look at the two icons: MyPlate and the Healthy Eating Plate you immediately spot these similarities and differences:

  • They both show a round plate divided into four sections: with vegetables and fruits taking up half the plate, and grains and protein taking up the other half, except that the Healthy Eating Plate adds the word “whole” to grains and “healthy” to protein.
  • They both have additional items next to the plate: MyPlate has one, a small circle with the word “dairy”. The Healthy Eating Plate has no dairy item, and instead has a glass of water and a jar of “healthy oils”.
  • The Healthy Eating Plate has a small icon of a person running with the message “stay active!”.

Like MyPlate, the Healthy Eating Plate points out that you should eat an abundant variety of vegetables, but unlike MyPlate, it recommends that you limit consumption of potatoes because they are full of starch that digests very quickly, and this has the same effect on blood sugar as refined grains and foods high in sugar. This has a roller-coaster effect on blood sugar and insulin, leads to hunger and over-eating, and eventually long term weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

For fruits, the Healthy Eating Plate recommends that you choose a “rainbow” of fruits every day, emphasizing that different colored fruit have different ranges of nutrients.

While USDA’s MyPlate points out that half your grains should be whole grains, the Harvard scientists say their plate emphasizes that all your grains should be whole grains such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice. They point out that refined grains such as white bread and white rice have the same effect as sugar: they digest too quickly and lead to the same up and down effect of blood sugar and insulin that in the longer term raises risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In the protein section, the Healthy Eating Plate says you should choose fish, poultry, beans or nuts because they contain “healthful nutrients”, and you should limit red meat and avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats altogether, because “even small quantities of these on a regular basis raises the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and weight gain”.

In the section referring to the glass of water, the Healthy Eating Plate suggests you drink water, tea or coffee, with little or no sugar, and you should have no more than one or two servings of milk and dairy a day. Also, you should limit juice drinks to no more than one small glass a day, and avoid sugary drinks altogether.

In the section referring to healthy oils, the Healthy Eating Plate suggests you use healthy oils like olive and canola, at the table, for cooking and salad. You should also limit butter and avoid trans fats.

Anthony Komaroff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of Harvard Health Publications, said:

“One of the most important fields of medical science over the past 50 years is the research that shows just how powerfully our health is affected by what we eat.”

“Knowing what foods to eat and in what proportions is crucial for health. The evidence-based Healthy Eating Plate shows this in a way that is very simple to understand,” he added.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD