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Published June 02, 2011, 02:54 PM

New symbol for healthy eating: Food pyramid out, 'My Plate' in

LOS ANGELES — The Agriculture Department unveiled a new symbol for healthy eating today, abandoning a food pyramid that has guided some Americans' food choices while confusing others.

By: Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The Agriculture Department unveiled a new symbol for healthy eating today, abandoning a food pyramid that has guided some Americans' food choices while confusing others.

The new guide is a plate, divided into four slightly different sized quadrants, with fruits and vegetables taking up half the space and grains and protein making up the other half. The vegetable and grains portions are slightly larger.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says "My Plate" aims to show that nutrition doesn't have to be complicated. After almost 20 years of preaching nutrition through a food pyramid that USDA officials now say was overly complex, obesity rates have skyrocketed. The new symbol, unveiled by Vilsack today at the department with first lady Michelle Obama in attendance, is simple and gives diners an idea of what should be on their plates when they sit down at the dinner table.

"Parents don't have the time to measure out exactly 3 ounces of protein," Mrs. Obama said as she introduced the new graphic. "We do have time to look at our kids' plates."

To get that message out, the department is planning to use social media — posting advice every day on Twitter, for example. The address of the accompanying website, choosemyplate.gov, is written on the chart. That website will eventually feature interactive tools that help people manage their weight and track exercise.

Robert Post of USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, who has spent two years developing the plate and the website, said the new chart is designed to be "more artistic and attractive" and to serve as a visual cue for diners.

Gone are any references to sugars, fats or oils, and what was once a category called "meat and beans" is now simply "proteins," making way for seafood and vegetarian options like tofu. Next to the plate is a blue circle for dairy, which could be a glass of milk or a food such as cheese or yogurt.

Vilsack stresses that the plate is supposed to be suggestion, not direction.

"We are not telling people what to eat, we are giving them a guide," he said. "We're not suggesting they should not have a cookie or dessert, that's not what it's about."

Even though the plate is divided into four different-sized sections, the servings don't have to be proportional, say officials who developed the symbol. Every person has different nutritional needs, based on age, health and other factors.

The graphic is based on new USDA dietary guidelines released in January Those guidelines, which are revised every five years, tell people to drastically reduce salt and continue limiting saturated fats. They ask diners to enjoy food, but balance calories by eating less and taking smaller portions. It also suggests making half of your plate fruits and vegetables — a message easily translated on the dinner plate.

"We know Americans want to be healthy, but making those healthy choices is not easy, it's hard," said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who joined Mrs. Obama and Vilsack to unveil the plate. "We're trying to make it easier."

Many nutritionists and nutrition groups praised the new effort, crossing their fingers that people will listen.

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food Studies, and public health at New York University, says there are already a lot of symbols out there telling people what to eat.

"This brings it all together," she says.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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