Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate: Try Again

20 05 2013

Not long ago the US government came out with the Choose My Plate campaign, aimed to show Americans how to eat properly. This is what they concluded:myplate_green

In essence, fill your plate with half fruit and veggies, a quarter grains, a quarter protein, and a glass of milk. Not bad… but where are the fats? Why so little protein? Fruit at every meal? Grains at every meal? Dairy at every meal? No water??? Obviously this could use some tweaking.

Enter, the new Health Eating Plate published by the “experts” at the Harvard School of Public Health. Their take on things?:

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For details on what they changed and why they changed it, feel free to take a look at their website here. Or read their side-by-side comparison. It’s great because they do make some improvements, but they are definitely still off target. To me, this comes across as an organization shooting off at the mouth parading as a “nutrition expert” without actually having done all their homework. They deliver some important points, but they absolutely whiff on others. Here’s my breakdown:

Grains: MyPlate doesn’t specify whole grains, which is bad. Harvard specifies whole grains and suggests avoiding refined grains, which is great. My only beef with this section is that grains really aren’t all that necessary in the diet at all (the fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc., can all be found in other foods like fruit, veggies, fats and lean protein) and it’s legitimately difficult for the average person to ensure that they are consuming actual whole grains and not unhealthy, refined carbs due to misleading advertising and nutrition facts labels. There’s really no need for people to consume this many grains, and the correlation between grains and a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease is about as accurate as saturated fats leading to higher risk of CVD- there are many other factors in play- if you’re eating lots of grains alongside lots of sugar, I’m going to bet your health isn’t great.

Fruits and vegetables: Harvard breaks huge news by specifying that potatoes and french fries are not vegetables; they also make is very clear that MyPlate overlooks this distinction. If this isn’t grasping at straws, trying excessively hard to make the old recommendations look bad, then I don’t know what is. Both specify half a plate of fruit and veggies. I won’t argue with this. I can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of eating your veggies!

Protein: MyPlate doesn’t specify which kinds of protein are healthy, so Harvard took it upon themselves to do so. Their conclusions?

  • Red meat and processed meat (read: saturated fat) is unhealthy “since eating even small quantities of these foods on a regular basis raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and weight gain.”
  • Eggs should be limited (despite a link to another Harvard paper indicating that eggs have a ton of health benefits and should only be limited for people with pre-existing health problems)
  • Beans and nuts are good sources of protein

This is where I start to get frustrated. The Harvard School of Public Health (and many other outlets) have pumped out lots of articles indicating the opposite of these findings. You know how I feel about saturated fat, and bacon, and eggs. Additionally, beans and nuts do contain protein, but they are no substitute for animal protein in both quality and quantity. Sure, the MyPlate guidelines didn’t specify anything, but at least they didn’t perpetuate outdated myths about healthy eating. For shame Harvard, for shame.

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Healthy oils: “MyPlate is silent on fat, which could steer consumers toward the type of low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet that makes it harder to control weight and worsens blood cholesterol profiles.” Is it not incredible that they mention this here, but overall are suggesting the kind of diet that will inevitably end up being high carb, low protein and low fat??? Suggesting that people use healthy oils but avoid saturated fat will not result in enough fat in the diet. Additionally, they go on to suggest using “healthy vegetable oils, like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and others, in cooking, on salad, and at the table. Limit butter, and avoid unhealthy trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils.” So wait, now vegetable oils like soy, corn, and sunflower are healthy? Are we trying to increase our omega-6 levels to the point where we develop chronic disease? But saturated fat is the devil? Congrats to Harvard for suggesting that oils and fats should be part of a balanced diet, but they certainly failed on their recommendations; as I’ve been saying all along: balance those fats!

Water: Harvard puts this in, where MyPlate does not. This is most excellent. It doesn’t give any indication about how much should be consumed daily though, and I think this is a huge oversight. Water is extremely important!

Dairy: MyPlate suggests dairy at every meal; this is a bit much. Harvard goes to the opposite extreme, saying that we should “limit milk and dairy products to one to two servings per day, since high intakes are associated with increased risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer.” I’ve never read about any links between dairy and cancer, nor does Harvard provide any research links. Dairy certainly isn’t necessary in the diet, but I don’t think there’s any reason to avoid it like the plague. Stick to low-fat dairy, and consume it in moderation, and everything will be OK.

Sugary drinks: MyPlate makes no recommendations, whereas Harvard says that juice should be limited to 1 glass per day, and other sugary drinks should be avoided completely. I love that they bring to light the pitfalls of juice and other sugary beverages, but why does juice get a pass? It’s just as bad as soda! Avoid sugar, and avoid liquid calories as much as possible for optimal health.

Staying active: MyPlate says nothing, Harvard has a little red dude running across their plate. The mere fact that they mention staying healthy is great. Kudos.

In conclusion, Harvard made a lot of improvements, but I think it comes across as cry for attention- “Look at us! We’re from Harvard! We know everything about everything!” If Harvard wanted to make improvements, they could have done so without haphazardly dissecting the MyPlate suggestions and playing a game of one-upmanship. In the end, they took a few steps forward and a few back; not much to write home about.

As always, I’m going to defer to the real experts and suggest you read this article by Precision Nutrition. They’re the industry leaders, and they will not lead you astray. Their Plate?:Berardi-Anytime-Plate-S

Yep, that about covers it; and they have different “Plates” for different diets and for different activity levels. Again, give this article a read, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

For more information on proper nutrition, you know how to find me!

Happy short week Canada!

- DW








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