02 June 2011

American Obento

The subject today concerns a dramatic shake-up in the United States Department of Agriculture's paradigm of daily food allowance recommendations.  Here is the Food Pyramid introduced by the USDA in 1992 (based, it should be noted, on the original model created in Denmark in 1978):

Typically, one would suspect a pyramid design to reflect a top-down hierarchy, but that was not the case with the Food Pyramid.  At the top we find Fats, Oils & Sweets meant to be "use[d] sparingly."  No, this is a bottom-up hierarchy ruled by the insidious Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta Group.  Clever marketing by food producers would have you believe that whole grain foods are paramount to ensuring your health and friends I am here to tell you that is a dangerous proposition.

I cannot say when I actually developed Crohn's disease, but it was no accident that I did not begin to manifest symptoms of pain until I made a concentrated effort to introduce more whole grain breads and fruits and vegetables into my diet.  Those foods run roughshod throughout your digestive tract, and they are the principal source of scar tissue because they barrel on through your intestines whether they can fit easily or not.  Scar tissue is permanent, folks.  You may not have a digestive disorder, and you may go your entire life without developing one (though the data suggests that the younger you are, the likelier it is you one day will).  Even still, a diet predicated primarily on whole grain foods is all but guaranteed to leave you with a damaged gut.

Today, First Lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin introduce a new paradigm for food recommendations, MyPlate:

The immediate reaction from middle-aged Americans has been one of derision, which is no surprise.  We're intolerant of the status quo in our youth, but throughout our 20s we generally find ourselves compromising our ideals because that's what you do to become a typical participant in society.  By the time we're in our middle-age, we've become protective of the status quo, convincing ourselves that we have matured and outgrown the impetuous ignorance of youth.  In some instances that may be true, but generally speaking I find that it's merely a rationalization for people who don't want to admit that their teenage selves would be disgusted by what they've become.

Anyway, back to MyPlate.  Firstly, I'm not in love with the compound name spelling.  "My Plate" would have been fine, and I think it's okay to remind children to use proper spelling and punctuation.  It seems like a derivation of "iPod" and other marketing terms that combine "Me" with "Possession," but whatever.  They didn't ask me.  I find the label, "Grains" bothersome but at least there's no image of wheat to link the word with its purest form.

What I do like about MyPlate is that it eschews the pyramid structure that suggests a hierarchy in favor of a more harmonious aggregate of foods.  I took a course in college on food and culture, and one of the subjects I studied were obentos, meals for young Japanese children to take to school.  There is tremendous pressure on Japanese mothers from school faculty, other mothers and society in general to adhere to very particular guidelines.  Magazines abounded to illustrate the dos and don'ts of preparing obentos, though I suspect that since I took that course this has moved from the realm of print to the Internet.  If a child is seen eating an imbalanced or aesthetically unpleasant obento, there is a strong chance someone will make a point to chastise the mother responsible for the meal.  The key tenets of creating an obento are these:
  • Moderation - A child should be able to finish the entire meal without being stuffed or still hungry.
  • Proportion - No one food should dwarf the others; there should be instead a proper balance.
  • Appearance - Textures and colors should contrast with one another to give the meal a distinctive, but harmonious, quality

When I look at MyPlate, I see these guidelines at work.  The scale of the plate is suggested by the inclusion of the fork; it is not a giant platter like we've come to expect when dining out, but rather a modest, old fashioned dinner plate.  The food groups are not equal in size, but they are reasonably balanced.  Lastly, while there is no obvious sense of textural differences between the food groups, each has its own color and creates a pleasant sight.

Will MyPlate really make a difference in our culture?  It appears at first blanch to be little more than a superficial marketing scheme, but consider how defensive so many Americans have become to the abolition of the Food Pyramid.  We were likely not even conscious of its impact, but we aren't bothered by its disappearance because we like triangular objects.  The Food Pyramid was our paradigm for understanding "proper" food intake for the better part of the last 20 years.  Clearly, as a society we failed to adhere to its idealistic recommendations, but it was always on our minds as we told ourselves when to feel guilty for eating too much of one group or not enough of another.  What will come of MyPlate remains to be seen, of course, but at least we have at long last overthrown the bottom-up tyranny of the Bread, Cereal, Rice & Pasta Group.

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