Harvard Calls USDA’s Food Plate Inadequate

Fri, 24 May 2013 - 9:55 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

In September, the Harvard School of Public Health launched the Healthy Eating Plate, their version of the USDA’s MyPlate, itself launched this past June as a major overhaul of the once-ubiquitous Food Guide Pyramid. The USDA’s MyPlate, which attempts to simplify dietary recommendations by constructing the ideal meal plate—heavy in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and light in saturated fat—is considered a success because it’s easy to see the recommended foods as a percentage of the total meal by simply looking at the portions on a plate. In turn, Harvard has applied this model to further illuminate what we ought to be eating, and the resultant plate differs from the government’s recommendations, or at least much of its focus. 

At Harvard’s School of Public Health they feel they are addressing nothing short of “important deficiencies in the MyPlate icon.” Strong language indeed, so what are they targeting differently from the USDA?

This side-by-side comparison highlights the perceived shortcomings in the government’s MyPlate guide, which Harvard says “fails to give people some of the basic nutrition advice they need to choose a healthy diet, and clearly illustrates the additional steps to take for a healthier diet.”

Sections of Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate

Corresponding sections of the USDA’s MyPlate

Whole Grains

The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to choose whole grains and limit refined grains, since whole grains are much better for health. In the body, refined grains like white bread and white rice act just like sugar. Over time, eating too much of these refined grain foods can make it harder to control weight and can raise the risk of heart disease and diabetes.


MyPlate does not tell consumers that whole grains are better for health.

Healthy Proteins 

The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to choose fish, poultry, beans or nuts, protein sources that contain other healthful nutrients. It encourages them to limit red meat and avoid processed meat, since eating even small quantities of these foods on a regular basis raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and weight gain.


MyPlate’s protein section could be filled by a hamburger or hot dog; it offers no indication that some high protein foods are healthier than others, or that red and processed meat are especially harmful to health.


The Healthy Eating Plate encourages an abundant variety of vegetables since Americans are particularly deficient in their vegetable consumption—except for potatoes and French fries. Potatoes are chock full of rapidly-digested starch, and they have the same effect on blood sugar as refined grains and sweets and limited consumption is recommended.


MyPlate does not distinguish between potatoes and other vegetables.


The Healthy Eating Plate puts fruits on the bottom, beneath vegetables, since we don’t need as much fruit each day as vegetables.


MyPlate puts fruit on top of vegetables, though it does show a smaller portion of fruit than vegetables.

Healthy Oils

The Healthy Eating Plate depicts a bottle of healthy oil, and encourages consumers to use olive, canola, and other plant oils in cooking, on salads, and at the table. These healthy fats reduce harmful cholesterol and are good for the heart, and Americans don’t consume enough of these healthful oils each day. It also recommends limiting butter and avoiding trans fat.

(Not included in MyPlate)

MyPlate is silent on fat, which could steer consumers towards the type of low-fat, high carbohydrate diet that makes it harder to control weight and worsens blood cholesterol profiles.


The Healthy Eating Plate encourages consumers to drink water, since it’s naturally calorie free, or to try coffee and tea with little or no sugar, which are also great calorie-free alternatives. It advises consumers to avoid sugary drinks, since these are major contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. It recommends limiting milk and dairy to 1 to 2 servings per day, since high intakes are associated with increased risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer; it recommends limiting juice, even 100% fruit juice, to just a small glass a day, because juice contains as much sugar and as many calories as sugary soda.


MyPlate recommends dairy at every meal, even though there is little if any evidence that high dairy intakes protect against osteoporosis, and there is considerable evidence that too-high intakes can be harmful. MyPlate says nothing about sugary drinks or juice.

Stay Active

The figure scampering across the bottom of the Healthy Eating Plate’s placemat is a reminder that staying active is half of the secret to weight control. The other half is eating a healthy diet with modest portions that meet your calorie needs.


(Not included in MyPlate)




In short, here is what Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate recommends:

  •  Make half your meal vegetables and fruits. Go for variety. And keep in mind that potatoes and french fries don’t count.
  • Choose whole grains whenever you can. Limit refined grains, like white rice and white bread, because the body rapidly turns them into blood sugar.
  • Pick the healthiest sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; cut back on red meat; avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats.
  • Healthy oils (like olive and canola oil) are good for you. Don’t be afraid to use them for cooking, on salad, and at the table.
  • Drink water, tea, or coffee. Milk and dairy are not must-have foods—limit them to 1-2 servings/day. Go easy on juice. Avoid sugary drinks.
  • Stay active!

Harvard contends that the USDA’s MyPlate is flawed because it says nothing about the quality of carbohydrates (grains). White bread and white rice raise blood sugar and are notoriously low in fiber; whole grains are better for long-term health. It also makes no distinction between healthy sources of protein (such as beans, fish, and poultry) and less healthy sources (such as red and processed meat).

In addition, MyPlate recommends milk or dairy at every meal, even though there is little evidence that high dairy intake protects against osteoporosis, and substantial evidence that consuming a lot of milk and dairy foods can be harmful. MyPlate says nothing about healthy oils, which are good for the heart, arteries, and the rest of the body. And it is shockingly silent on sugary drinks, which provide far too many empty calories.

P.J. Skerrett, an editor at Harvard Health Publications, goes even further. The federal government’s food recommendations, he writes in a blog, have always been on shaky footing, influenced more by the food industry and agriculture interests than by science. “MyPlate,” he writes, “continues this unhelpful trend.”

The Healthy Eating Plate, free of commercial pressure, is according to Skerrett based on the latest and best scientific evidence, which shows that a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy proteins lowers the risk of weight gain and chronic disease. Helping Americans get the best possible nutrition advice is of critical importance, as the U.S. and the world face a burgeoning obesity epidemic. Currently, two in three adults and one in three children are overweight or obese in the U.S., according to the Harvard School of Public Health. They are going out on a limb with these important challenges to convention to do their part to fight it.



Harvard School of Public Health, the Nutrition Source, September 2011, http://tinyurl.com/3vnb4hm


Questions and Answers About the Healthy Eating Plate, 2011, Harvard Health Publications, http://tinyurl.com/3md8cxl

Harvard to USDA: Check out the Healthy Eating Plate by P.J. Skerrett, Editor, Harvard Health Publications, September 2011, http://tinyurl.com/3ks9w2h



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® September / October 2011 • Volume 29, Number 5)

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