Introducing the Power Plate
It’s time to retire the Pyramid. Yes, its shape was appealing. And its message was reassuring. Whether you gravitated toward the grains, fruits, and vegetables at its base, or the meats and dairy products pictured on its upper levels, the Pyramid had you covered. But that was exactly the problem. From the beginning, the diagram was at odds with scientific evidence. It was intended to promote a solid premise, that the basis of the diet should be vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But its recommendations for meat and dairy products flew in the face of countless studies showing that people who eat these products daily are less healthy than people who steer clear of them.
In 1991, when the Eating Right Pyramid was about to debut, three colleagues joined me in suggesting a better way. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., who led the China Study; Denis Burkitt, M.D., who established the value of fiber in the diet; and Oliver Alabaster, M.D., an oncologist from The George Washington University, spoke at a PCRM press conference near the White House. We held that the dietary staples should be the New Four Food Groups—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). All other foods were deemed optional—and some “optional” foods (e.g., meats, dairy products, eggs, greasy and sugary foods) are best left off the plate entirely.
A week later, the Pyramid was released. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, already reeling from our suggestion that meat no longer be a daily requirement, was scandalized by meat’s seemingly reduced prominence on the Pyramid. The group descended on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and demanded that the diagram be withdrawn—which it was, in no time flat. Not until a year later did it reappear nearly unchanged under the name “Food Guide Pyramid.” In 2005, the diagram was redrawn to replace the depictions of food with uninterpretable colored stripes. Users had to go online to find out what was recommended. And that’s the Pyramid we know today.
Enter the Power Plate. It is a simple and reasonably literal diagram that shows the healthy foods that belong on our plates. It is both more accurate than the Pyramid and much easier to implement. PCRM has developed and released the Power Plate with posters in doctors’ offices, advertisements in nutrition journals, and a full Web presence. And we have asked the federal government to adopt it—or something like it—as federal policy.
There are many uncertainties in nutritional science: Is it better to emphasize whole grains, or should our plates be more abundant in vegetables and fruits? Is raw better than cooked? The Power Plate does not tackle these questions. Rather, it sticks to the basics: a healthy diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. It also points out the importance of getting vitamin B12 from either supplements or fortified foods (a recommendation that the government currently limits to older people, but is sound advice for everyone). And it presents these ideas in a framework that anyone can understand.
An up-to-date teaching tool is just a first step in improving people’s eating habits. But if our educational tools can keep up with what we know about nutritional science, our message is that much more powerful.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM