The USDA’s “My Plate” Makes No Sense

If you’ve ever watched Sesame Street, you may remem­ber the song about cat­e­gories: “One of these things is not like the oth­ers. One of these things just doesn’t belong.” That song ran through my head when I looked at the USDA’s My Plate food group sys­tem, which fea­tures veg­eta­bles, fruits, grains, dairy, and pro­tein. One of the foods groups isn’t like the oth­ers and just doesn’t belong. Can you guess which one?

If you guessed pro­tein, you’re right! Four of the food groups rep­re­sent a type of food­stuff, but pro­tein is a nutri­ent. Foods from all of the oth­er groups also con­tain some pro­tein.

Peo­ple often have to sort things into cat­e­gories for var­i­ous pur­pos­es. The cat­e­gories that you cre­ate depend on what goal you are try­ing to achieve. If you are doing your laun­dry, you first sort your clothes into three cat­e­gories. You can wash some things in the wash­ing machine. You have to wash oth­er things in the sink. Still oth­ers have to go to the dry clean­er. You prob­a­bly sort the machine-wash­able clothes by whether they go in the reg­u­lar cycle or the del­i­cates cycle. Unless you don’t mind if your whites turn pink, you should also sort your machine-wash­able clothes by col­or. In oth­er words, all of the clothes get sort­ed into a par­tic­u­lar cat­e­go­ry accord­ing to how they get washed. Of course, you’d sort your clothes by dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria when you are decid­ing what to wear. You might have some out­fits that you wear to work or school, oth­ers that you might wear to a night­club, and still oth­ers that you might wear while paint­ing or gar­den­ing.

In con­trast, the My Plate food group sys­tem isn’t a good cat­e­go­riza­tion sys­tem for any pur­pose. Four of the groups rep­re­sent a type of food­stuff: fruit, veg­eta­bles, grains, and dairy. The fifth group rep­re­sents a nutri­ent: pro­tein. Why do four of the food groups rep­re­sent food­stuffs but the oth­er one rep­re­sents a nutri­ent that is eas­i­ly sup­plied by three of the oth­er food groups? It makes no sense. If you think about what goes into the pro­tein group, the cat­e­go­ry makes even less sense.

The pro­tein group is the old “meat” group from the Basic Four Food Groups in dis­guise. It con­sists of meat, eggs, fish, and legumes (beans and peas). Yet there’s no good rea­son to put legumes in the same group with meat, fish, and eggs. Meat, eggs, and fish are all ani­mal tis­sue. There­fore, they all con­tain fat and cho­les­terol but no fiber or car­bo­hy­drate. In con­trast, legumes are plant tis­sue. They con­tain zero cho­les­terol, and most con­tain only trace amounts of fat, but they have plen­ty of fiber and car­bo­hy­drate. Like the ani­mal-source foods, beans and peas do con­tain a lot of pro­tein, but pro­tein defi­cien­cy is sim­ply not some­thing that peo­ple real­ly need to wor­ry about. There’s no need to encour­age peo­ple to eat high-pro­tein foods, so there’s no need for a “pro­tein” group.

I would nev­er put legumes in the same cat­e­go­ry as meat, fish, and eggs. The rea­son is sim­ple. Peo­ple would be bet­ter off if they didn’t eat any meat, fish, or eggs at all. Eat­ing even small amounts of those foods increas­es the risk of death from chron­ic dis­ease. In con­trast, the world’s health­i­est pop­u­la­tions tend to eat a lot of beans. So maybe the children’s song is right: “Beans, beans, good for your heart….”

pcrm_new-4-food-groups-bmpAt first glance, the USDA’s My Plate sys­tem looks a lot like the Physi­cians Com­mit­tee for Respon­si­ble Medicine’s Pow­er Plate. How­ev­er, the Physi­cians Com­mit­tee for Respon­si­ble Med­i­cine designed the Pow­er Plate to pro­mote human health, not to sell food prod­ucts. The Pow­er Plate includes only four cat­e­gories of food: fruit, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, and legumes (beans and peas).

The PCRM’s Pow­er Plate doesn’t include a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry for pro­tein because you can eas­i­ly get enough pro­tein by eat­ing veg­eta­bles, grains, and beans. The Pow­er Plate doesn’t con­tain meat or dairy foods, because those foods increase the risk of seri­ous health prob­lems, such as obe­si­ty, heart dis­ease, autoim­mune dis­ease, and can­cer. The Pow­er Plate also excludes refined foods, such as olive oil and corn syrup, which mere­ly pro­vide emp­ty calo­ries.

Wild goril­las meet their nutri­tion­al needs by eat­ing prac­ti­cal­ly noth­ing but veg­eta­bles and a lit­tle bit of fruit and a few nuts. These foods pro­vide all of the essen­tial nutri­ents except for vit­a­min B12 and vit­a­min D. Vit­a­min B12 comes from bac­te­ria, and the body makes its own vit­a­min D when bright sun­shine hits the skin.

Goril­las main­ly eat leaves. Leaves pro­vide plen­ty of pro­tein, as a per­cent­age of calo­ries. How­ev­er, wild goril­las have to spend about 8 hours a day eat­ing, just to get enough calo­ries. If you don’t want to spend all day eat­ing leaves, add some starchy foods to your diet. That means whole grains, legumes, and starchy roots and tubers, such as pota­toes and sweet pota­toes. These starchy foods will fill you up but will help you stay slim and healthy.

narcissists-cover-01 Note: Ontol­ogy is the branch of phi­los­o­phy that deals with how to name things and how to sort them into cat­e­gories. There are sev­er­al impor­tant rules of thumb for judg­ing a cat­e­go­riza­tion sys­tem. One is that the sys­tem allows each item to be cat­e­go­rized into exact­ly one clas­si­fi­ca­tion. A cat­e­go­riza­tion sys­tem that meets that cri­te­ri­on can be described as MECE, which stands for mutu­al­ly exclu­sive (i.e., the cat­e­gories do not over­lap), col­lec­tive­ly exhaus­tive (every­thing gets clas­si­fied). Anoth­er cri­te­ri­on is reli­a­bil­i­ty, which means that dif­fer­ent peo­ple would give the same item the same clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Yet anoth­er cri­te­ri­on is valid­i­ty. The clas­si­fi­ca­tions have to be use­ful for some prac­ti­cal pur­pose. In my book Don’t Feed the Nar­cis­sists! The Mythol­o­gy and Sci­ence of Men­tal Health, I explain that the sec­ond edi­tion of the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Association’s Diag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­u­al (DSM-II) was unre­li­able. It was there­fore invalid. (An unre­li­able clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem is auto­mat­i­cal­ly invalid.) I also explain that there are still debates about the reli­a­bil­i­ty and valid­i­ty of var­i­ous psy­chi­atric diag­noses.

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