Perhaps the lush infographics I’ve been enjoying lately thanks to GOOD.is have me spoiled, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by “My Plate,” the USDA’s latest attempt at a visual representation of a balanced diet. The graphic, released Thursday, replaces the oft-maligned food pyramid, which was introduced in 1992 as a way to get Americans to eat healthier food but instead became a symbol for much of what is wrong with the American diet: too much grain and carbohydrate, not enough fresh produce.
I understand that the designers were trying to simplify the image as much as possible. It’s meant to be a quick and memorable reference for the population at large, not a definitive guide for food dorks like me. And simplify it they did, to the extent that it more closely resembles a Mark Rothko block painting than a nutritional guide. I love the choice of a plate as an image (not to be confused with a pie, of course), which people already associate with food, serves as an easy reference point for proportional portion size, and doesn’t place food groups in a hierarchy like the original pyramid did. I’m thrilled to see vegetables and fruits taking up half the plate.
However, with simplicity as a guiding principle comes omission of some (crucial, I would say) nuance. Instead of a recognizable fifth food group, we get the nebulous “protein.” How are we supposed to interpret this category, given that many vegetables, grains, and dairy products are great sources of protein? Where do beans and nuts fit in? Furthermore, one-fourth of a typical American dinner plate is actually much larger than the recommended portion size for a cut of meat (which should be about the size of a deck of cards).
I’ve written before about the textual guidance meant to accompany the image. which are drawn from new nutritional guidelines drawn up last year. I wish some of that information could be incorporated graphically, but doing so would sacrifice some of the image’s straightforward appeal.
Despite its elegance as a symbol, the plate graphic leaves me cold. It may be easily memorizable, but it isn’t memorable in the way that might inspire healthier, more balanced cooking and eating. It calls to mind math class rather than the dinner table. Until we as a nation stop thinking of healthy eating as a chore and begin to understand it as a source of pleasure, we’re not likely to trim our collective waistline anytime soon.
Have an idea for a more inspiring yet still simple graphic? Do share in the comments!
A version of this post first appeared on FreshtheMovie.com.