MyPlate: A New Alternative to the Food Pyramid

Caroline Novas, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund

A goal of the U.S. government is to help guide adults and children to be as healthy as possible. “MyPlate” replaces the familiar “food pyramid” diagram that underwent several changes in the 19 years since it was first introduced.[1] The MyPlate model shows the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy) in a place setting. It is designed to be easier to understand when you think about what types of food to include in each meal that you eat.



How Does MyPlate Work?

The plate is divided into four unequal sections to represent different food groups. Vegetables make up the largest section, followed by grains. Fruits and vegetables fill half the plate while proteins and grains fill the other half.

One of the most noticeable things about MyPlate is that it includes no distinct meat section. Instead, “protein” includes fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds in addition to meat. In addition to recognizing the benefits of a plant-based diet, another big change is the elimination of the “oils” or “fats” section included in the food pyramid.

A small blue circle on the side of the plate represents dairy. This simple model is designed to make it easy for consumers to see what an ideal meal should look like, without too many restrictive details.

Critics of MyPlate say it shouldn’t include dairy, which they argue is unnecessary for a healthy diet. Critics also say it is important to give information about the size of the plate.

History: From MyPyramid to MyPlate

For over 100 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided Americans with different types of food guides and pyramids to encourage healthy food choices.  Since 1992, the Food Pyramid has been the dominant model.  The idea behind the original 1992 Food Pyramid was that the foods we should eat most are the ones that form the base of the pyramid, while those we should eat less of are near the top.  However, these guidelines were unclear and difficult to follow.  The Food Pyramid was based on servings, but there was no clear guidance about serving size, and no guidance on the total number of calories recommended per day.

Because of these problems a new pyramid – MyPyramid — was introduced in 2005. Food groups were coded by stripes in widths corresponding to the recommended servings from each group.  All the stripes tapered toward the top of the pyramid to remind people that each food group includes both healthy and unhealthy choices, such as foods with added sugar or “solid” fat. Although an improvement over the old Food Pyramid, MyPyramid was criticized as confusing to many consumers.  The USDA hopes that MyPlate will provide a simple, easy to understand visual method for consumers to eat healthfully.

How Do I Plan Family Meals with MyPlate?

MyPlate is based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which provides detailed instructions for planning healthy meals and snacks.  These guidelines are fairly long, but there are some simple points to take away:

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Try to choose whole or cut-up fruits without added sugars, and vary your vegetables; try different types and cooking them different ways (raw, steamed, roasted, sauteed) but try to avoid fried.
  • Switch to 1% or skim milk, cheese, and other dairy options. Avoid full-fat dairy products.
  • Half of your grains should be whole grains. Grains are the largest portion of MyPlate, and half of those should be whole grains. Look on labels for the word “whole”– not multigrain or seven grain. Brown rice and whole wheat pasta also count. Try to stay away from grain-based desserts and snacks, such as baked goods
  • Vary your protein. Try different types, such as seafood, eggs, beans, unsalted nuts, lean meat and poultry.
  • Watch out for sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars. Use nutrition labels to help you choose food and drinks that contain less sodium, fat and added sugar. Bread can have as much salt as salty snacks, for example. Many fruit juices have little fruit and lots of sugar, and sweetened coffee drinks can contain a lot of sugar and fat.  Try to drink water instead of sugary drinks.
  • Get more physical activity. Most Americans don’t get enough physical activity. Daily exercise is important to overall health. Kids, especially, should have limited “screen time,” and be encouraged to play outdoors rather than watching TV or using the computer.

For more guidance, the USDA offers the website. You can use the website’s SuperTracker tool to create a personalized plan just for you. It also has other resources to help you find healthy recipes, calculate your BMI (body mass index), and learn more about how to maintain a healthy diet.

MyPlate information is also available in 20 different languages, including Spanish.

MyPlate can be a helpful basic guideline for kids and adults to know how much to eat from each food group, but it’s important to also follow the additional guidelines above for healthy eating.

All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff. 

  1.  Retrieved June 7, 2011, from United States Department of Agriculture.