Questions About the USDA Nutritional Guidelines Graphic

Protein is a nutrient found in food, not something you find on a plate.
Protein is a nutrient found in food, not something you find on a plate.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the government body responsible for setting nutritional guidelines for Americans.  In the past they have released the “food pyramid” graphic that we all remember from growing up.  Now they have the “choose my plate” info-graphic that guides us in our food choices.

I have a few questions about the graphic.

1. Is protein a food?

There are 4 parts of the plate: Fruits, Grains, Vegetables, and–Protein?  Protein is not a food, but a nutrient found in food, so why is it on my plate?  Protein can be found in all 3 of the other parts of the plate in amounts ranging from 2-11% of calories from each item.  Listing protein as a separate part of my plate would lead me, the consumer, to believe that fruits, grains, and vegetables have either no protein or not enough protein (when in fact they do).  Have you ever heard of an American being protein deficient?  Neither has any doctor in America.  As Dr. T. Colin Campbell states, “it is impossible to be nutrient deficient on a whole foods, plant based diet unless you are calorie deficient.”  That is, if you eat enough calories, you can not fail to get all of the protein that you need.

OK, so I see from the info-graphic that I need to eat protein.  Since protein is not a food I am left to figure out what to eat to get my protein.  Who will tell me where to get my protein?  Oh, hello corporations!  In the past 5 years there has been an absolute explosion of protein advertising on food packaging.  Everything from cereal to crackers boasts how many grams of protein are in the product.  But isn’t cereal just grains?  That’s on my plate already!  It seems that I really could get the protein I need from eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.  Here is the confusing little thought-circle I just went around:

Protein on my plate>>what is protein?>>grain cereal>>grains are on my plate already!

That big purple protein shape on the info-graphic is also a disguise for meat.  Clearly the USDA means that we should eat meat.  Why can’t they list the actual food on the plate then?  Do they list the nutrient found in meat because it would be unethical to recommend that we eat meat and animal products, since they contain no fiber, are high in saturated fat, and are the only source of heart-clogging cholesterol?

2.  What dairy is found in a glass?

This one is a no-brainer.  The graphic is showing me dairy in a round shape next to a plate, which is of course a glass.  Should I be drinking a glass of melted cheese?  Or perhaps a glass of butter?  They might as well label the glass with the only item that it could be, which is milk.  My theory here is that if the glass were labeled milk it would in effect be advising consumers to limit their total dairy intake to a glass of milk per day (far less than Americans actually consume).  If I consume a glass of milk, milk on my cereal for breakfast, a hunk of cheese during the day, shredded cheese on my meat or veggie dinner, butter on toast, butter to cook my meat or veggies in for dinner, low fat greek yogurt with my lunch and a few bites of cottage cheese as a snack then I might think, “Great!  I got my recommended dairy for the day.”  But if my guideline is one glass of milk I might drink it and think “Great!  I got my recommended milk for the day.”  See the power of specificity to limit consumption here?  Is the USDA interested in limiting consumption of dairy and animal products, which contain no fiber, are high in saturated fat, and are the only source of heart-clogging cholesterol?

3.  How much of each food should I eat?

I’m looking at my plate and it’s pretty clear that I should eat more vegetables than anything, next largest is grains, then, uh, maybe protein, then fruit, but it looks like dairy might be as large as fruit, umm…

Maybe I’ll have a look at this photo of a family of 4 eating dinner from the USDA Choose My Plate homepage to get a better idea of the amount of each food to eat:

Choose my plate
Healthy plates?  Or standard American diet (resulting in heart disease, the #1 cause of death in the United States)?

This family appears to be eating a breaded and fried (ok, maybe baked) chicken breast, with a tiny side salad, a giant basket of bread covered in cheese, a bowl of shredded cheese, and bowl of what appears to be pickles, or maybe peppers.  The central part of their plate is meat.  Dairy represents a large percent of calories from their meal.  Then we have the bread, which doesn’t look like it’s made with whole wheat flour, so it’s processed, and covered in cheese.  I assume they each had an apple today since there is no fruit pictured.  The vegetables take up 1/4 or less of their plate, and who would want to eat a salad like that?  It’s just plain greens.  I’d love to see a large salad with quartered red potatoes, sauteed asparagus and a home made dressing of mustard and white vinegar.

The USDA nutritional guidelines info-graphic may seem simple and straightforward, but it is actually confusing and misleading to the American consumer whose health is at stake.

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