WASHINGTON - There's a new U.S. symbol for healthful eating: The Agriculture Department unveiled "My Plate" on Thursday, abandoning the food pyramid that had guided many Americans but merely confused others.
The new guide is divided into four different-sized quadrants, with fruits and vegetables taking up half the space and grains and protein making up the other half. The vegetables and grains portions are the largest of the four.
Gone are the old pyramid's references to sugars, fats, or oils. What was once a category called "meat and beans" is now simply "proteins," making way for seafood and vegetarian options such as 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.
Some critics, including congressional Republicans, have accused the Obama administration of reaching too far in trying to make Americans eat healthier, especially when it comes to new rules that tell schools what students can eat on campus.
The new plate is simply guidance, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
"We are not telling people what to eat," he said. "We are giving them a guide."
Vilsack said the new round chart shows that nutrition doesn't have to be complicated. After almost 20 years of leaders preaching good eating through a food pyramid that the department now says was overly complex, obesity rates have skyrocketed. He showed off the new plate with Michelle Obama, who has made healthful diets for children a priority through her "Let's Move" campaign.
"Parents don't have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of protein," Obama said as she introduced the new graphic. "We do have time to look at our kids' plates."
The department plans 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 their exercise.
Even though the plate is divided into four different-sized sections, the servings don't have to be proportional, said Robert Post of the Agriculture Department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion who spent two years developing the plate and the website. Every person has different nutritional needs, based on age, health, and other factors.
The guidelines and the icon were the subject of lobbying by food industries who want to see their products promoted and not discouraged. Fruit and vegetable growers were celebrating their victory over half of the plate Thursday, while dairy producers said they were also pleased with the cup beside it. The president of the National Cattleman's Beef Association, Bill Donald, said he was not concerned about the elimination of the word meat, because beef is so associated with the word protein.