What’s on Your Plate?

John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP

Modern scientific research is helping fulfill the 2,000 year old admonition that Hippocrates gave to both physicians and patients- “let food be your medicine”.

Much of the best nutrition research is generated by the Department of Nutrition of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)- the oldest such department in any school of public health, celebrating its 70th birthday this year. The Department of Nutrition is a worldwide leader in rigorous scientific research on the relationship between food and health.

HSPH’s public educational website is The Nutrition Source www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource. By signing up for a monthly email update, you can use the latest scientific evidence to help you make wise food choices to promote health, prevent disease and use ‘food as medicine’ to help manage many common medical conditions.

HSPH’s public nutrition mission is reflected in its creation of the Healthy Eating Plate, created in response to the US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate, which replaced the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid in June 2011. The world’s best nutrition researchers agree that the USDA’s prior Food Guide Pyramid and new MyPlate reflect undue influence by powerful business lobbying interests, primarily from the animal products industry, fast food businesses, food manufacturers and food processors.

The USDA has a dual mandate to 1) promote US agricultural products and 2) advise the US public on nutrition. Lobbying by special interests weakens the scientific credibility of the USDA’s public nutrition advice, leading to recommendations that are not consistent with current scientific evidence. HSPH’s Healthy Eating Plate is based purely on a critical review of the best scientific nutrition research without lobbying pressure by special interests.

How does the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate differ from the USDA MyPlate in educating consumers on the 4 major food groups- fruits, vegetables, grains and protein?

Grains- The Healthy Eating Plate explains that whole grains (whole wheat, brown rice, whole ‘old fashioned’ oats) are better for health. Vital nutrients are removed in processing to make white flour, white rice and ‘quick’ oats. Your body handles these processed grains like sugar, contributing to our epidemic ‘diseases of civilization’- obesity, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, constipation, diverticular disease of the colon, arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. There is also accumulating evidence that whole grains can help you live longer and protect against some cancers. The USDA MyPlate fails to inform consumers that whole grains are a healthier choice than processed grains.

Proteins- The Healthy Eating Plate explains that some proteins are healthier than others. Healthy proteins include fish, poultry, nuts and beans (including soybean products such as tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame, soy milk, soy flour, soy protein, soy nuts and others). Whole grains are also a source of healthy proteins. The Healthy Eating Plate advises that red meat be limited and that bacon, cold cuts and processed meats be avoided. The USDA MyPlate makes no distinction between health and unhealthy proteins. It fails to warn consumers that frequent consumption of red meat, cold cuts and processed meats is associated with cancer, heart disease and lower life expectancy.

Fruits and vegetables- Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables to promote health and prevent disease. Researchers agree the healthiest eating plan includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, focusing on a ‘rainbow’ of colors (dark green, red, yellow, orange) to provide abundant amounts of anti-oxidants and phytonutrients- both known to have special health promoting and disease preventing properties.

The Healthy Eating Plate recommends a wide variety of vegetables to protect against cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive problems and other medical conditions. It advises moderation in the use of potatoes, which the body handles as if it were sugar. The USDA MyPlate fails to inform consumers that potatoes are the unhealthiest vegetable choice (while being the #1 vegetable eaten by the American public) and is especially problematic for people with diabetes. Our national obsession with the French fry exposes Americans to excess calories and unhealthy fats. MyPlate also fails to inform consumers that whole fruits are healthier than fruit juices and fruit drinks for a variety of health reasons, especially in children.

Fats and oils- The Healthy Eating Plate distinguishes between health and unhealthy fats and oils. It recommends the moderate use of olive, canola and other plant oils, limiting butter use and completely avoiding trans fat. The USDA MyPlate fails to warn consumers about the distinction between healthy and unhealthy fats and oils. It also fails to point out that a supposedly healthy, low fat diet may be heavy on unhealthy, overly processed carbohydrates- a dietary pattern that is part of our national epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis and other conditions.

You can be healthier and live longer by making smart nutrition choices. But don’t count on the USDA to help you make the wisest choices. The Healthy Eating Plate and The Nutrition Source at Harvard’s School of Public Health are your best nutrition guides to a longer, healthier life.

“Let food be your medicine”.

About the Author-

Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine, Saybrook University’s School of Mind Body Medicine (San Francisco) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative medicine consultations. He can be reached through his website at www.mindbodystudio.org.