Karen Chapman-Novakofski, a registered dietitian and a professor of nutrition in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition education theory and interventions.
Photo by David Riecks, ACES-ITCS
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More than one-third of American adults are obese or overweight, and health problems caused by or exacerbated by weight problems are manifesting themselves at increasingly younger ages among children and teens. To help Americans battle the bulge and eat healthier, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recently replaced its iconic food pyramid with a graphic of a plate to assist people in making better food choices and controlling portion sizes. Karen Chapman-Novakofski, a registered dietitian, professor of nutrition in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at Illinois and internationally recognized expert in nutrition education theory and interventions, spoke with News Bureau writer Sharita Forrest about the new guidelines.
How is the My Plate graphic an improvement over the food pyramid we had before?
The My Pyramid dietary icon that the USDA had previously was an advancement on its Food Guide Pyramid, which had icons representing grains on the bottom, then fruits and vegetables on the second level, meats and dairy on the third level and foods that should be eaten least often at the top. People couldn't tell what foods the icons on each level of the pyramid represented and couldn't use the pyramid very effectively.
The My Pyramid graphic was a little more complicated - it had the little stick figure walking up the side of the pyramid to indicate the importance of physical activity.
I think USDA then took a step back - or step forward, if you will - and looked at some nutrition education materials that have been useful to dietitians in their work with clients, and found that dietitians have used the plate method of teaching healthy eating and weight control for many, many years.
What are the concepts that dietitians use relative to the plate graphic?
Our plates should contain fruits and vegetables and one-quarter each grains and protein. What gets a little harder to understand is what foods constitute grains or proteins. The USDA does have interactive plate graphics online that allow the reader to click on links and see examples of foods in each category. Since we associate plates with food anyway, it's probably clearer than the pyramid concept was for many people.
How effective has the plate concept been for dietitians in helping people change their eating habits?
Dietitians have found it useful primarily as a weight-management tool, so they don't have to count carbohydrates or calories in order to make better food choices and control their portions. The key to this strategy, however, is the sizes of the plates that are used.
I know there's been some discussion at USDA about whether they should tell us how big that plate should be. For weight management, it's usually a 9-inch plate, which is the size of an inexpensive paper plate.
When I used to teach medical students in the College of Medicine about the plate concept as a method for counseling patients, their question always was, "How high can you stack that plate?"
Portion control is still going to be an issue.
What are the biggest stumbling blocks for people in their efforts to eat healthier and manage their weight?
From my professional perspective, portion sizes and awareness of what they're eating. A lot of people don't spend much time thinking about what they're eating throughout the day and the quantities. Sometimes it's because they're in social situations and aren't aware of how many chips they've eaten, for example. It could be mindlessly eating throughout the day or not reflecting on how much they've eaten during a meal.
Another problem is not taking the time to really read food labels. I've been studying food my whole career, and I'm still surprised by the vast differences in calories and grams of fat in similar products such as cookies, ice creams or foods that you shouldn't eat very often. Reading those food labels and making comparisons can really make a difference.
And it seems that some manufacturers try to trick us - packaging that we might commonly consider as containing single servings actually contains two or more servings.
And that works both ways. I was getting ready to teach a class and was in the grocery store reading bread labels for their dietary fiber data, and I found a loaf of white bread that seemed to be the product with the highest dietary fiber. At second glance, I found that the product's serving size was two slices instead of one, and it had added cellulose, which is fiber but not the same kind of whole-grain fiber that the brown breads contained.
You have to really do your homework and read the food facts labels for the ingredients and serving sizes. It's a lot more work than most people want to do for food.
What should people keep in mind as they're looking at the new guidelines or just generally trying to eat healthier?
The USDA's first message is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by having half the plate contain those foods. For me, that seems to be easier to accomplish at dinner and harder to do at lunch. My lunch foods don't often include vegetables unless I include salads. Keeping the proteins and grains at one-quarter of the plate each may be difficult. Balancing one's own calorie needs with exercise and physical activity can be done using the new plate icon and the foods that are on there.
There's always been a disagreement among nutritionists whether fried vegetables - french fried potatoes and onion rings, for example - should be counted as vegetables. While they are still vegetables, they probably should be eaten occasionally rather than every day, and people should increase the variety of preparation methods used and opt for those that result in lower fat and calories. Preparation methods really matter. And people should drink more water than sugary drinks.