Katerina Kerska, National Center for Health Research
An important goal of the U.S. government is to help guide adults and children to be as healthy as possible. One way to do so has been to make dietary recommendations as visual representations of nutrition guidelines. You may be familiar with the “Food Pyramid” or “MyPyramid,” but the most recent diagram is called “MyPlate.” The dietary recommendations are updated every 5 years to keep up with current research and health data. The most recent update of the Dietary Guidelines came out in 2020, and it uses an updated MyPlate visual model.
The 2020 MyPlate model, shown below, shows a plate containing the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains, and dairy) in a place setting. It is designed to help you to visualize how much of your plate should be taken up by a particular food group.
photo from myplate.gov
How Does MyPlate Work?
The MyPlate image is a plate that is divided into four sections, with each section representing how much of each food group you should eat. Vegetables make up the largest section, followed by grains. Together, fruits and vegetables fill half the plate while proteins and grains fill the other half.
It may surprise you that MyPlate does not include meat as one of the 5 food groups. Instead, the category “protein” includes fish, shellfish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products, in addition to meat.
A small blue circle on the side of the plate represents dairy. The latest USDA Guidelines include fortified soy alternatives in this category.
This simple model is designed to make it easy for consumers to see what an ideal meal should look like, without too many restrictive details. For specific food group amount recommendations, refer to the MyPlate website or the full Dietary Guidelines.
Some critics of MyPlate say it shouldn’t include dairy, which they argue is unnecessary for a healthy diet. Critics also say it is important to give information about the size of the plate and the portions because different people have very different ideas about how large a “portion” is.
How To Plan Family Meals Using MyPlate
The nutrition information in MyPlate is based on a set of recommendations called “Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines provide detailed instructions for planning healthy meals and snacks for all ages and life stages, such as recommendations for women who are breastfeeding or for toddlers. These guidelines are fairly long, but here some key points:
- Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables. Try to choose whole or cut-up fruits without added sugars, and vary your vegetables; try different types as well as cooking them in different ways (raw, steamed, roasted, sauteed). However, try to avoid fried vegetables. Try to choose a variety of colors when picking out your vegetables.
- Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy options. Lactose-free or fortified soy versions are also recommended.
- At least half of your grains should be whole grains. Look on labels for the word “whole”– not multigrain or seven-grain. Brown rice and whole-wheat pasta also count. Try to stay away from grain-based desserts and snacks, such as baked goods.
- Vary your protein. Try different types, such as seafood, eggs, beans, unsalted nuts, soy products, lean meat, and poultry.
- If consuming alcohol, do so in moderation. Limit your intake to 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink a day or less for women.
- Limit added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat.
Other Guidelines For Healthy Eating
The USDA Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to use MyPlate as a tool to plan healthy meals. They also outline 4 guidelines to “make every bite count”:
- Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage. Your eating patterns — what you eat most of the time– are important. Think of how you and members of your family can shift to a healthier eating pattern. The Guidelines give specific recommendations for all ages across the lifespan. The full set of recommendations can be found here.
- Customize your choices. Eating healthy can still be enjoyable! The new guidelines provide advice on how to include personal preferences, cultural traditions, and varying budgets when choosing foods to eat.
- Eat Nutrient Dense Foods. Nutrient-dense foods are full of vitamins and minerals that promote health. They have little added sodium, sugar, or saturated fats. Examples of nutrient-dense foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, seafood, beans and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, lean meat, and poultry. Fresh, unprocessed foods have the most nutritional value.
- Limit Foods and Drinks with Added Sugar, Sodium, Saturated Fats. It is recommended that at least 85% of calories come from nutrient-dense foods while no more than 15% come from other sources. Look for ways to make healthy swaps such as water instead of soda or plain, low-fat yogurt instead of full-fat yogurt, or flavored yogurt with added sugars. Many foods such as dried fruits, granola bars, fruit juices, and condiments like ketchup or pasta sauces can often be full of hidden sugars or salt. Take advantage of nutrition labels to help you choose food and drinks that contain less sodium, fat, and added sugar.
For more guidance, the USDA offers the MyPlate.gov website. You can use the website’s MyPlate Tools to create a personalized plan just for you. It also has other resources to help you find healthy recipes, calculate your caloric needs, work within your budget, and learn more about how to maintain a healthy diet. Alternatively, there is now a MyPlate App to help you make healthy choices on a daily basis.
The Bottom Line
MyPlate can be a helpful basic guideline for people of all ages to know how much to eat from each food group, but it’s important to also follow the additional guidelines above for healthy eating. By eating unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods and limiting sugars and saturated fats, Americans at any age can begin forming healthy eating patterns.
If you are interested in reading more about diet and nutrition, you can check out these articles:
Eating Habits that Improve Health and Lower Body Mass Index
Obesity in America: Are You Part of the Problem
Ten Easy Tips to Get Your Family Eating Healthy
The Cost of Obesity: A Higher Price For Women
Is When You Eat Just as Important as What You Eat?
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.
- MyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/