Forget the four food groups (circa 1956). Forget the food pyramids (so 1992). Today’s nutrition advice is served on a plate.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently updated the icon that translates the agency’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans into an easy-to-understand visual. Called MyPlate, the new graphic recommends that we base our meals on vegetables and grains with lesser portions of fruits and protein and a side of dairy.

MyPlate represents an upgrade from past USDA efforts, but it still falls short in the eyes of some nutrition experts.

“It’s a huge improvement over the pyramid because at least now it’s a plate that people can relate to,” said Joan Lavery-McLaughlin, a nutritionist at The Wellness Solution in Falmouth and an oncology dietitian at Mercy Hospital. “But certainly they could do better.”

Susan Fekety, a registered nurse and nutrition counselor at True North Health Center in Falmouth, agreed with that assessment.

“It’s definitely better then the pyramid,” Fekety said. “I think it’s more sensible for people to use, and it has the portions a little better.”

One of the main complaints about MyPlate (and its predecessors) stems from the fact that the USDA operates under a conflicted mission. On one hand, it’s charged with helping Americans eat better. On the other, it’s responsible for promoting and subsidizing agricultural products.

Too often, the commodity crops that the USDA subsidizes and promotes become highly processed grocery store products and such quasi-foods as high-fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (commonly known as trans fat).

“MyPlate really reflects the connection to the agriculture industry and the subsidies,” Fekety said. “The USDA’s reason for being is not, unfortunately, healthfulness. Its reason for being is the support of these agribusinesses. Which is unfortunate, because this is the information that gets propagated into the schools and to dietitians.”

In response to this conflict, the Harvard School of Public Health and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have produced their own plates.

Harvard calls its version the Healthy Eating Plate, and on first glance, it looks relatively similar to the USDA’s MyPlate.

However, one of the biggest differences is that instead of recommending a glass of milk at each meal, the Harvard guide recommends water. It also calls attention to better-for-you oils by recommending olive and canola oils, a limited amount of butter and avoidance of trans fats. Lavery-McLaughlin said she prefers this plate over the USDA’s option.

The Harvard guide says to limit milk and juice consumption and stay away from sugary drinks. While the USDA plate recommends eating grains every day, the Harvard plate goes further and recommends whole grains and only a limited amount of refined grains, such as white flour or white rice.

When it comes to the protein quadrant, the Harvard plate promotes fish, poultry, beans and nuts while advocating for limited red meat consumption and avoidance of bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats.

In a prepared statement, epidemiology and nutrition professor Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.

“The Healthy Eating Plate is based on the best available scientific evidence and provides consumers with the information they need to make choices that can profoundly affect our health and well being.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is headed by Dr. Neal D. Barnard, introduced its vegetarian Power Plate more than a year ago. The group lobbied the USDA to adopt the Power Plate in place of the former MyPyramid.

Of the three, the Power Plate is the most simple. It divides the plate into four equal sections that represent grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits. It is the only plate that doesn’t recommend consumption of meat, eggs or dairy products.

The plate’s vegetarian composition is consistent with the nonprofit’s advocacy of plant-based diets as a way to prevent and reverse chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cancer.

“Americans are getting fatter and sicker by the day,” Barnard said in a prepared statement. “If we’re going to beat this national crisis, the federal government must offer straightforward, accurate advice on the power of vegetarian foods to fight obesity. Our Power Plate offers lifesaving advice, and it is simple enough for a child to follow.”

Still, neither Fekety nor Lavery-McLaughlin view any of the plates as perfect.

“One shortcoming is they don’t tell you what size plate to use,” Lavery-McLaughlin said.

In her own practice, Lavery-McLaughlin recommends 9-inch plates for women and children and 10- to 12-inch plates for men and people who are really active.

She counsels her patients to eat a portion of protein equal to the size of their fist (people with bigger hands typically need more calories) and to eat a serving of grains equal to the size of their palm.

“All of these plates share a common flaw in that they’re trying to be useful to everyone, but that’s not possible because we’re all so biochemically different,” Fekety said.

As Lavery-McLaughlin pointed out, author Michael Pollan has it right with his advice to eat unprocessed, whole foods.

Or as Pollan said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila