Our society is now so complex that children need 16+ years of education to successfully survive in it. We have even managed to make the simple act of eating so complicated that one-third of adults are either overweight or obese.
To address the public health crisis stemming from this last bit of “progress,” about 70 countries worldwide have independently created graphic food guides to make the fundamentals of healthy eating more understandable and practical. You’re probably familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Pyramid, which was introduced in 1992, revamped as MyPyramid in 2005, and revised yet again as MyPlate in 2011. (That last iteration, by the way, cost taxpayers $2 million.)
Judging how effective these icons are at changing eating behavior is difficult, if not impossible. But they’re educational, at least on an elementary level and, as you’re about to see, entertaining as well.
To help us examine some of the most noteworthy ones, we enlisted the help of Robert C. Post, Ph.D., the creator and designer of the latest U.S. food graphic, and James Painter, Ph.D., R.D., an Eastern Illinois University professor who has studied these guides for 25 years and is probably the world’s foremost authority.
The USDA has issued seven graphic food guides in the last 70 years. Here you see the evolution from the very first (early 1940s) through the most recent (2011). Two noteworthy trends: 1) fruits and vegetables have eclipsed grains as the dominant food group in a healthful diet, and; 2) there has been a gradual simplification of the information presented.
“We knew MyPyramid was complicated and not very effective for the general population,” says Post, the acting executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, “so we set out to develop a simple but powerful and inspiring icon to replace it. And MyPlate has been very well received. Eighty percent of nutritionists nationwide report using it, and we’ve developed a robust set of programs and tools around it at ChooseMyPlate.gov.”
Painter, however, thinks the USDA has gone too far. “The plate is wonderful compared to the pyramid,” he says, “but in an attempt to be simple, I think we went simpleton. Dr. Post told me its purpose is to point people to the Internet for more information, but most people don’t go to the Internet.”
Regardless of who’s right, keep in mind that obesity rates among children, the very group you’d expect these icons to influence most, increased fivefold from 1973 through 2009.
“This is one of my favorites,” says Painter. Three reasons: 1) it takes the same plate approach as the U.S. but shows more food detail; 2) cultural eating differences are addressed with ethnic items as tortillas and beans, and; 3) it’s color-coded, with green representing eat more and red eat less.
“Great Britain has used a plate for many years,” says Painter. “In my opinion, this one and Mexico’s are both better than the U.S. because they show more detail.”
“This is one of the most creative,” says Painter. “Since the information is presented on a spinning top, it includes energy expenditure better than any other diagram. If the little guy on top stops running, the whole thing falls over, meaning that even a well-balanced diet isn’t effective if you don’t have exercise built in.”
“This one is so complete it’s amazing,” says Painter. “It has the most detail of any diagram by far.” Each side of the three-dimensional pyramid showcases a different food group with specific examples of what should be consumed more (at the base) and less (at the peak). The circle on the bottom of the pyramid represents a plate and not only depicts proportionality but also the foundational importance of staying well hydrated.
Behold the world’s simplest food guide. The house icon depicts the importance of building a healthful diet on a foundation of grains, fruits, and vegetables. The chimney? Sugar and fat need to be burned with physical activity.
The French took a novel approach by using a staircase instead of a plate or pyramid. Each step represents the number of daily servings one should get from the corresponding food group, while the very act of climbing showcases the importance of exercise. What Painter really likes, though, is how they’ve put fat, sugar and salt under a magnifying glass. “Many countries don’t know how to handle that,” he says, “but France has done a nice job.”
Guatemala and Honduras
Both of these countries have made their food guides culturally specific by using cooking pots – the traditional center of their kitchens. The logic is the same as the pyramids – eat more of what’s on the bottom and less of what’s on top.
According to Painter, this is one of the oldest food guides (created in the 1970s) and also one of the most potentially confusing. “It’s completely proportional,” he explains, “each segment is the same, whether it’s vegetables, dairy, grains, or even oils. They insist their goal is to show the importance of variety in a diet, but what it’s telling me is that you should eat all these things equally.”
Besides commanding attention with colorful graphics, this design supplies the percentages of daily calories that should come from each food group. A helpful touch.
So where does all this leave us (besides fat and momentarily bemused)? Painter, who is compiling a detailed comparison of two dozen country diagrams for the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, says that such food guides are “really good teaching tools, especially for kids, but they’re not going to help overweight adults very much.”
However, there is one thing about them that should be celebrated. “All these countries – 70 of them – that normally can’t agree on anything have essentially agreed on what constitutes a healthy diet,” he explains. “All these diagrams, in whatever form they take, say to cut down on processed food, sugar, salt and fat while increasing fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Everybody agrees!”
Now if we could only get everyone to actually follow that advice….