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Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Take on MyPlate: Weak Spots in the New USDA Dietary Guidelines

The United States Department of Agriculture recently released new dietary guidelines. The colorful new icon, MyPlate, is less confusing than the food pyramid, and the new guidelines have some good points. They suggest beans, soy and seafood as sources of protein, encourage consumers to read product labels, and urge people to pursue physical activity. It’s certainly a step up but there are still some weak spots. Here's my take.


Half the plate on the new guidelines is composed of fruits and vegetables, which is an improvement, but I would like to see even more vegetables. Ideally, half of the plate should be composed of non-starchy vegetables alone.

I agree that one-quarter of the plate should be protein, but I think that the last quarter should come from this list: legumes like beans and lentils (unless this is your protein source), organic dairy products, raw nuts or seeds, true whole grains (not processed whole grains), whole fruit, or even more vegetables.


Grains should be optional. Some contain gluten, a protein that can trigger Celiac disease and other health problems. Individuals who are allergic or sensitive to gluten can usually tolerate gluten-free grains, like brown rice, quinoa, teff and millet, but most feel best when they eat no grains at all.

Because they're made mostly of starch, eating too many grains can cause problems with blood sugar and insulin. In individuals who are sensitive, these metabolic imbalances can lead to fatigue, weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

I like that MyPlate instructs people to drink water instead of sugary beverages. But it also recommends 100% fruit juice for everyone, which is a sugary beverage.

Juice may be full of healthy nutrients, but it's also full of easily digestible sugars. The sugars are natural, but when they are consumed without the fiber (the pulp extracted by most juicers) they are quickly absorbed, causing glucose and insulin levels to skyrocket, especially when consumed on an empty stomach.

Whole fruits and vegetables are almost always better than the juiced variety, but there are exceptions. Juice can be a good supplement for people who can't tolerate a high fiber diet. And if it's a green juice, it's a good source of chlorophyll that helps the body eliminate environmental toxins, so it can be an effective component of a detoxification program.

If you’re going to drink juice, limit your consumption to 4 ounces per day and never juice more produce than you would eat in the whole food form. (If you wouldn't eat 5 oranges at once, you shouldn't drink the juice of 5 oranges at once either.) Juice should be 50 percent vegetables, including at least one green vegetable. Good choices include organic spinach, kale, celery, skin-on cucumber, beets and bell peppers. Juice made from fruits and starchy vegetables like carrots and beets should be diluted with an equal amount of water.

Full Fat Foods

Now that research studies have exonerated saturated fats as culprits behind chronic disease (it’s oxidized and trans-fats that are harmful), I was hoping the USDA would help spread the word. Fat is an essential nutrient that our bodies desperately need and I was disappointed to see that the new guidelines urge us to "switch to fat-free or low fat (1%) milk."

Whole foods are always better than processed foods, including milk. Other good dairy choices are full fat products cultured from organic whole milk like yogurt, keffir, and cheese. However, avoid eating products from animals exposed to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. These chemicals can accumulate in animal fat and cause health problems in humans. Look for dairy products from pasture-raised cows at your local farmer’s market.

Cooking Oils

The new guidelines recommend that we "switch from solid fats to oils when preparing food" but they don't differentiate between good and bad solid fats, nor good and bad oils.

I would not recommend any of the oils on the USDA's list: canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, margarine or vegetable oil. Because they are not cold-pressed, these oils are extracted using chemicals and/or heat, which can oxidize the fatty acids. (Unsaturated fatty acids are especially unstable because not all of the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms. At least one is missing.) Oxidized fats damage cells and create inflammation in the body that can initiate cardiovascular disease and promote the growth of cancer cells. Also, most of the oils on the USDA’s list contain too few anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and too many pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.

Alternatively, cold-pressed oils like extra virgin olive oil (not the same as olive oil), sesame oil (not toasted), and coconut oil contain healthy fats that have not been oxidized. Extra virgin olive and sesame oils are primarily unsaturated, so they should not be heated to high temperatures. Use them in salads and as garnishes, and cook with them over low or medium heat. Coconut oil is primarily saturated fat, so it is suitable for high-temperature cooking.

I agree that everyone should avoid margarine, shortening, and hydrogenated oils, which are laden with trans-fats, but some solid fats are not bad choices. When they come from animals raised on pasture, cultured butter, ghee and rendered animal fat are good candidates for high-temperature cooking because their saturated fats are stable and unlikely to oxidize.

Protein Sources

I'm happy to see that the new guidelines include vegetarian sources of protein like soy, but it's important to differentiate between healthy soy foods and unhealthy ones. The best choices are traditional, like tofu, or cultured, like tempeh, miso and tamari. Processed soy products like fake meats and cheeses should be avoided.

The USDA also recommends two meals of seafood each week. However, many species contain toxic contaminants like heavy metals, PCBs, and other dangerous chemicals. Always choose fish and seafood that live low on the food chain and are sustainably harvested. Avoid large predatory fish like tuna and swordfish because they contain the highest concentrations of environmental toxins. Use the Monterey May Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide to make the best choices.

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