MyPlate vs The Competition

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October 7, 2012 by hpworley

There are multiple challenges the USDA faces in both creating and communicating the dietary guidelines.  It’s no doubt that creating guidelines specific enough to be useful, yet general enough to address the masses would be a daunting task.  This is especially true given the cultural diversity and varying socioeconomic status and educational level of Americans. 

A task of equal difficulty is communicating that message in an appealing way.  My personal experience in sharing the dietary guidelines is that they are perceived as less than glamorous.  Unlike many popular diets today there is no “induction” phase that promises quick weight loss.  There’s no clearly defined, “Eat this” or “Don’t eat this” list.  For example, the consumer brochure that delineates the dietary guidelines merely suggests that you, “Try some of these options” like switching to fat free milk (1).  People want something new, cutting edge, that’s easier to implement with faster results, in short the elusive magic bullet.  The USDA is competing with a slew of weight loss and health promotion remedies, who, unlike MyPlate, promise a toned, sleeker, sexier you. 

Another challenge is disseminating the information to the population at large.  As a mini experiment I called a non-professional friend I consider to have a nutrition knowledge greater than most and asked her to let me follow her through a web search she might conduct when looking for nutrition information.  After 15 minutes of clicking on various websites I guided her to the MyPlate, which we explored together.  She was excited about this new resource, and despite it replacing MyPyramid over a year ago, had never heard of it.  Though this is really not a surprise when you consider the barrage of food advertisement messages consumers hear every day.  A memorable scene in Supersize Me makes this point by comparing some annual advertising budgets.  In his documentary Mr. Spurlock states that in 2001 McDonalds spent $1.4 billion on advertising, Pepsi spent over $1 billion and Hershey’s spent $200 million compared to the 5 a day campaign that spent a lowly$ 2 million dollars in its best year (2).  A recent article in the New York Times stated that McDonald’s advertising costs are now closer to $2 billion dollars.  The article goes on to outline McDonald’s advertising strategies.  These strategies include the recruitment of “mom bloggers” and a campaign that allows you to meet the farmers that provide fresh grown food to McDonalds (3) (link provided in resources if you’d like to view) (4).  This is just one fast food restaurant.  SNAP-Ed, the nutrition education component of SNAP had approved funds of $375 million in 2011 (5).  Makes it pretty darn hard for MyPlate to compete. 

So what’s the answer?  How does the USDA spread its message when it’s up against countless other weight loss and food advertisements?  Unfortunately there’s no one solution.  Despite continued increases in funds for nutrition education through SNAP-Ed, a recent study by Leung et al in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that few of the 44.7 million Americans on SNAP met nutrient guidelines.  In fact SNAP participants consumed fewer whole grains (39%), more fruit juice (44%), more potatoes (56%) and more red meat (46%) than income eligible non-participants.  Additionally women consumed 61% more sugar sweetened beverages (6).  Part of the solution is no doubt ensuring federally funded programs like SNAP align with the dietary guidelines, something which has recently received more attention.  However, it will likely take more than government funding and nutrition education to help Americans make improvements in their diets.  Consumer awareness and communities demanding changes are made in their built environment including availability of healthy foods and safe space where people can be physically active is a necessity.   Though this may be the new American dream and unrealistic to many, a strong public health workforce that can approach the problem from multiple levels of the socioeconomic model is vital to help facilitate this change.

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Resources

1) USDA.  Choose My Plate.  Web.  Accessed 4 Oct 2012.  Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/print-materials-ordering/dietary-guidelines.html

2) Supersize Me.  Dir. Morgan Spurlock.  Samuel Goldwyn Films Roadside Attractions, 2004. DVD.

3) Obrien, Keith.  “How McDonald’s Came Back Bigger Than Ever.” The New York Times. 12 May 2012. Web. 6 Oct 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/magazine/how-mcdonalds-came-back-bigger-than-ever.html?pagewanted=all

4) McDonalds.  YouTube.  Web.  Accessed  6 Oct 2012.  Available at: http://www.youtube.com/user/McDonaldsUS?v=Hv2lNjF1Pl4&feature=pyv&ad={creative}&kw={keyword}

5) USDA. Nutrition Programm Facts: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education.

6) Leung, Cindy W., Ding, Eric L., Catalan, Paul J., Villamor, Eduardo, Rimm, Eric B., Willet, Walter C., “Dietary Intake and Dietary Quality of low-income adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2012). Web.  6 Oct 2012.

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4 thoughts on “MyPlate vs The Competition

  1. Yes, the USDA pretty much has a slew of thankless tasks under its belt! How can the supertracker (https://www.supertracker.usda.gov/default.aspx) be better used? How about an app? how about building community of users who can help keep each other accountable??

  2. Olivia Dong says:

    Heidi – you bring up great points in your blog post.

    I’ve experienced the same thing you described when trying to explain the dietary guidelines to someone else. Since so many people believe quick fixes are the answer when it comes to weight loss and healthy eating, they are in disbelief when I describe the anticlimactic DGA recommendations to them. Many believe there are “secrets” to successful weight loss and healthy living that are not disclosed in the DGA and will often continue to probe me as if I’m keeping it from them. Turning to the weight loss industry for the answers allows them to latch on to some hope that a quick fix does indeed exist. And the idea of a quick fix makes sense since American culture places so much emphasis on getting results right away.

    One challenge you mentioned was being able to disseminate the DGA information to the population at large and I found that much of the public is still unaware of the DGA. In a study done in 2004 found 55% of a random sample were unaware of the DGA. For those who were aware of the DGA, many named recommendations that were not correct (i.e. eat a diet low in meat) (PMID: 11822549). The researchers made the argument that many of the incorrect recommendations were shaped by other health information sources such as the media. It’s scary to know that many confuse federal messaging with ones from other sources such as weight loss companies.

    Even if the USDA was able to increase the reach of their recommendations, I don’t know how helpful they would be in terms of influencing consumers’ dietary choices because of how confusing they are to implement. In that same study, the answers the researchers received from participants when asked about various other aspects of the DGA made it apparent just how confused people are when it comes to putting the DGA into practice. They learned that many participants tend to think of food as “good” or “bad” and then have issues when recommendations are not quantifiable (i.e. eat in moderation or eat a balanced diet). The article made a good point in that consumers tend to look at food decisions on an item-to-item basis rather than being able to evaluate the diet as a whole. As RDs, I think it’s important for us to get clients to think about their diet both on an item-to-item basis and on a more holistically level.

  3. locklearcr says:

    Awesome insight Heidi!

    You made an excellent point about appealing to consumers, which is obviously a huge downfall of the guidelines as well as professionals trying (or not) to ‘sell’ healthy eating to their clients. Our efforts appear to be overwhelmingly trumped by big fast food chains and all of their irresistibly cheap prices and advertising. Maybe we should consider fighting fire with fire. Like that baby carrot commercial, though a little extreme, at least makes an impression on the audience.

    When I was at FNCE, they actually had a cooking demo called “seductive cooking”, which basically showed how to make cooking at home delicious without deep frying it and rolling it in sugar. It’s a shame that this kind of experience is only available after being an RD (or almost RD) and forking out hundreds of dollars to participate. This kind of thing should be more widely accessible for everyone.

    I actually talk to my family a lot about health and nutrition and it’s safe to say that I am the only resource they get information from…besides Dr. Oz telling them to eat raspberry ketones. They are tech savvy, have internet at home and work, and are categorically upper middle class Americans. If this kind of population isn’t getting the message, then who is? The priorities of people in the U.S. aren’t exactly centered around what’s for dinner, unfortunately. It’s left up to us to ‘spread the word’.

    Bottom line is…we need commercials with sexy women eating broccoli and apples, rather than giant messy burgers.

  4. arp0118 says:

    Heidi, I enjoyed reading your blog post. You brought up several interesting points. I find it fascinating how much money food companies will spend to promote their products. You know they wouldn’t spend the money, if it didn’t work. Conversely, very little money is spent promoting healthy foods. I agree with Courtney – we need advertisements with sexy women eating broccoli!
    I also think it’s true that very few people have even heard about MyPlate. I actually was explaining it to someone I thought would have heard of it just the other day. I guess sometimes I forget I am in a “public health bubble” right now at UNC SPH! Information about dietary guidelines needs to reach more Americans! I also was wondering if you have heard of Harvard’s version of the MyPlate? It’s called “The Healthy Eating Plate”. I think they did a good job adding enough detail to guide people without adding too much. It is pretty similar in content to MyPlate, other than the fact that it promotes water over milk and promotes specific types of fat. Here’s a link to a comparison between the two plates:
    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/healthy-eating-plate-vs-usda-myplate/index.html

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