Is the plate half full or half empty? The food guide icon just unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that Americans fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables.
This advice -- and the new simple plate design -- are significant steps forward. But as a dietitian, I find myself focusing on the sharp contrast between the new icon and federal agricultural subsidies.
The USDA's new plate icon, as well as the department's recently released dietary guidelines, advise Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese. But the federal government continues to subsidize these products with billions of tax dollars and gives almost no support to fruits and vegetables.
The federal government spends about $16 billion per year on agricultural subsidies. While more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies in recent history have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production, less than 1 percent has gone to fruits and vegetables.
It's clear that the federal government understands that the latest nutrition research supports a shift toward plant-centered diets to help fight heart disease, cancer, obesity and the other chronic diseases that are killing so many Americans.
The dietary guidelines recommend eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains -- and even include full sections outlining the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets. But the government is still having trouble putting its money where its mouth is.
It's an endless cycle. The government uses billions of tax dollars to encourage the production of foods that have been linked to chronic diseases, and uses billions more tax dollars to cover health care costs for the resulting hospital bills. In 2008, the direct medical costs associated with obesity added up to $147 billion.
Since the USDA's first Food Pyramid was introduced two decades ago, obesity and diabetes have become commonplace. About 27 percent of young adults are now too overweight to qualify for military service, and an estimated one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. More than 60 percent of deaths in the United States are caused by heart disease, cancer and other diet-related diseases.
In 1991, the USDA unveiled the first Eating Right Pyramid, which emphasized grains, fruits and vegetables and reduced emphasis on meat and dairy products. The USDA quickly withdrew the icon because of objections from the meat industry. The next year, the department introduced a similar food guide but added recommendations for two to three servings each day from the meat group and two to three from the dairy group.
The USDA is finally taking a bold step by introducing this plate icon that encourages a shift toward diets rich in plant foods. But just as the USDA has given the food guide icon a makeover, Congress must revamp farm policy to encourage the production and consumption of healthful foods. Our health depends on it.
Kathryn Strong is a staff dietitian with the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.