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WYSIWYG Food Pyramid?

The old iconic Food Pyramid has received a serious upgrade today, the MyPlate. Gone is the notion of a pyramid. Instead, we’re shown a plate, with the food portions on it, in all it’s What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get glory. The USDA’s food pyramid originally started out in 1943 as, ironically, a donut

It’s not clear to me if the slices are intentionally the same size, but this is where the concept of what graphically showing people what food they should be easting. While the USDA has gone back and forth about what food groups need to called out, the biggest problem has always been how to communicate to Americans how much they should be noshing, gnawing and guzzling. In what seems like a headline from the Onion, there was a breakthrough in food group graphics with the iconic Food Pyramid:

Unfortunately, the pyramid had several problems- it was long argued that the portions were vague… How much sugar exactly is in a pyramid capstone? It’s a lot bigger than all those bread loaves below it… is it more important than the other food groups because its at top? The idea, to give users a direct mapping between what groups and how much of each group is key for a diet, but the pyramid doesn’t cut it.

In fact, it was only now that I realized the background of each food group is supposed to, for some unknown and vague reason, represent the amount of fats and sugars in each group. Until I was looking this up today, I always thought that was a cool starry background. What can I say? If you were elementary school in the early 90s, there were 3 things the US did- the food pyramid, DARE and Hubble. Everything else somehow supported those programs, I assumed they gave you pamphlet explaining exactly how when you turned into an adult.

Anyways, jumping into the new millenium. The USDA’s attempted to revise the food pyramid  in 2005 with the MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You. It looks like some sort of cross between a rainbow, a Mayan temple and the Sydney Olympics:

If anything, this pyramid has even more infographic failure stuffed into it. The rays are still portioned, and we’ve lost the lovely fat & sugar starry night. It’s extremely difficult to determine how much each portion represents- at the top they all end in a point (don’t eat anything, you fat ass) while the bottom descends in enough food to feed several “Healthier You”s. It might be alright if the bars along the bottom kept the same width ratio as the rays, but they’re all the same size! There’s even a yellow “ray” that is not explained, perhaps a vestigial sugar group?

Which brings us all to today. I like the direct, no nonsense approach of the MyPlate, even if the graphics look like they’re from a web developer who was incarcerated in 1998 and just released on payroll. However, I have to question how effective this plate will be- the portions have changed, but now they’re so close in size, it’s hard to know what to do with that information. It’s pretty clear you should eat more grains and vegetables, but by how much? Is that extra space for veggies about the size of a stick of celery? What if I don’t eat meat pie? How do I know how much meat is too much?

Did you know that the emphasis is no longer on the relative portions? That’s right. Apparently portions are no longer a focus according to officials. So why use an infographic that encourages you to think in terms of sizes and ratios?

Humans are bad at both dieting and estimating the area of pie charts, so why throw the two together? If the USDA wants to really go with What-You-See-Is-What-You-Eat, it should abandon the abstract portions and give people concrete examples, especially in the age of the Internet- 3 apples, 2 stalks of broccoli and a chicken thigh will always be much easier to understand than rainbows and pyramids.