A New Look at a Balanced Diet

June 09, 2011

The USDA introduced its first food guide  in 1902. Known as the Atwater guide, it laid the foundation  for recommended food groups and serving sizes.  After 109 years and almost a dozen changes in content and form, the USDA has just published a new, simpler guide based on recent accepted nutritional research.  As with any change, there are a variety of pro and con opinions about the new form, but let's look at what it says. Basic food groups are the same, but specific changes offer a clear view of the options available for a healthy diet.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: The food plate designates a full half of its healthy nutritional regimen to fruits and vegetables, the one group with a sizable increase! This is a welcome change. The health benefits of a diet rich in vegetables and fruits include lower blood pressure; reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and probably some cancers; lower risk of eye and digestive problems; and a positive effect on blood sugar that keeps the appetite in check.
  • Grain: Slightly more than one-quarter of the diet represented on the plate is dedicated to grain, with the suggestion that at least one-half of grain intake should be whole grains. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. For more information on grains and why they're so important, check out our post from last week - Whole Grains: The Real Stuff.
  • Protein: The remainder of the food plate is dedicated to protein.  This is one of the more controversial sections of the plate.  Why protein?  Why not break down meat, fish and legumes?  Actually, considering the variety of diets people adhere to these days, this is another good change.  Whether you don't eat meat, but eat fish, are a vegetarian or adhere to a strict vegan regimen, the guide can help gauge your protein intake.
  • Dairy: The dairy icon to the side of the plate seems to have caused the greatest consternation.  It's inclusion is important. It represents a glass of milk or some other type of dairy such as cheese or yogurt, but calcium-fortified soymilk (soy beverage) or rice milk is also part of the Dairy Group.
Additionally, the new food guide advises that you reduce sodium intake, particularly in processed foods, and drink water instead of sugary drinks. The pyramid will persist and other forms remain; the European Union still uses a pyramid visual, while Japan inverts it's pyramid and China uses a Buddhist pagoda! Whether it's a plate, a pyramid or a pagoda, the important goal is to eat a healthy, balanced diet!

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