Follow the Plate


In direct contrast to the government’s MyPlate nutritional chart, nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health have released the Healthy Eating Plate. Guided by nutritional studies, their chart fixes what they call “key flaws in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate.” While MyPlate includes dairy among healthy food choices for instance, the Heathly Eating Plate omits dairy, because studies show high intake of dairy products can increase the risk of prostate cancer, and possibly ovarian cancer. There are also healthier, non-dairy options for getting adequate calcium, including collards, bok choy, fortified soy milk, baked beans and supplements containing both calcium and vitamin D.

The Harvard School of Public Health has praised the government’s MyPlate—promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2011—as a good alternative to the former food pyramid, which gave too much emphasis to meat and dairy. MyPlate instead devotes half its plate to fruit and vegetables—a message echoed in Harvard’s own Healthy Eating Plate.

But, they write, there are still areas where the government’s nutrition recommendations run counter to science. For instance, “MyPlate does not show that whole grains are a better choice than refined grains…or that beans, fish, and chicken are healthier choices than red meat. Healthy fats—key to heart health and to lowering the risk of diabetes—do not appear at all on the plate. Yet dairy is given a prominent place at the table, despite evidence that high intakes of dairy products do not reduce the risk of osteoporosis and may increase the risk of some chronic diseases.” Worst of all, they write, “MyPlate is silent on the large portion of the US diet that’s junk: sugary drinks, sweets, salty processed foods, refined grains, and the like.”

While U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during MyPlate’s launch that the chart is designed only “to tell you the proper proportions” not “to tell you specifically what to eat” and guidelines on the website go into more detail about eating whole grains and limiting sugary drinks, when it comes to dairy and red meat, Harvard nutritionists argue that the government recommendations do not line up with science.

Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate is big on specifics, noting that people should use healthy oils (like olive and canola); drink water, tea or coffee and limit milk and dairy (and avoid sugary drinks); eat a variety of whole grains; eat more vegetables (excluding potatoes and French fries); eat plenty of fruits and choose fish, poulty, beans and nuts for healthy protein sources. They also advise avoiding bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health have found that eating processed meat—including bacon, sausage and deli meats—was associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Unprocessed red meat—including beef, pork and lamb—did not carry the same diabetes and heart disease risk.

“When we looked at average nutrients in unprocessed red and processed meats eaten in the United States, we found that they contained similar average amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol,” said Renata Micha, a research fellow in the department of epidemiology at HSPH and lead author of the study. “In contrast, processed meats contained, on average, four times more sodium and 50% more nitrate preservatives. This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats.”

Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate was designed to reflect studies such as these, to guide consumers to healthier choices backed by science and not influenced by the food and beverage industries.