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The Brain-Dead Design Behind The USDA's New Dietary Chart

To see whether he wasn't the only one baffled by the chart's lame graphics, Rick Barrack interviewed the proverbial guy on the street.

Last month, I attended "back-to-school night" at my four-year-old’s preschool, where the teacher spelled out my daughter’s curriculum for the school year. Not only did she inform me that my kid would be learning eight languages plus calculus by the time Christmas rolls around; she also told me that I should not pack her lunch box with cookies, chips, or sugary juice boxes, as that would be a major Montessori faux pas. (Personally, I’m surprised they don’t have an organic chef on staff, given how much I’m dishing out in tuition.)

Unsure of how to achieve the optimal nutritional intake for my daughter, I turned to the USDA’s MyPlate well-intentioned initiative designed to (and promoted by Michelle Obama) remind parents of the basics of eating right. Given how much debate there’s been lately about childhood obesity and diabetes, I think there’s no better time to take a good, hard look at kids’ diets. So you can imagine my disappointment when I felt more baffled than ever after having a look at the primary graphic: a circle (presumably a plate) carved up four food groups, which looks to have spawned a smaller circle labeled "Dairy" (presumably a glass of milk). The plate is supposed to be an improvement over the food pyramid, which caught criticism for being too complicated to understand.

But as these on-the-street interviews show, MyPlate’s dietary recommendations are still far from self-evident. It does away with the pyramid’s number of servings but doesn’t provide its own details about number and size of recommended portions. With 17% of U.S. children facing obesity, clear dietary guidelines should be available for families looking to make healthful choices. Unfortunately, MyPlate doesn’t measure up.

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  • Victor

    Interesting topic. "Food" for thought, so to speak. However, I would've taken CBX's tagline of "Real. Intelligent. Creative." more seriously if the video didn't have a typo.

  • Esin

    Thank you for posting a the review, sure it is hard to design such an infographic and there are very very different people involved. The way people address the issue, the comments show. However I believe your approach shows a lack in suggesting a solution. Is it the right way to approach issues like that, saying, the plate doesn't work the pyramid didn't wirk either. Obesity is horrible. 

    Well, yes it is. I spent my whole choldhood and adolescence as an obese person and only this year, I could figure out what my problem was/is (basically PCOS) and was able to lose almost 20kg in 10 months. I am telling this story because I did this through increasing my knowledge surely but most of all, having a positibe attitude towards obesity. This attitude, unfortunately my family and my society lacked. 

    So, maybe we should be discussing what are the ways to approach this 'plate issue'. Do you think another analogy would work? Like a table? Or a lunchbox? Or maybe we should make bracelets in different colours and weights to symbolize  a healthy meal day, switch them from one arm to the other like cellphone battery levels? 

  • Rick

    Whoa, it’s great to hear from so many readers! My intention with the video was not to bash the MyPlate design (and certainly not the efforts of Michele Obama to battle childhood obesity), but rather to open up the dialogue about this pertinent topic. And open it up I did, according to your impassioned responses! Keep ‘em coming – if there’s one thing I love about design, it is its power to get people pissed off.

  • curious observer

    I agree with the comments about design snobbery. This is better than the pyramid. Most people don't eat off of a triangle-shaped plate. Behavior modification begins with awareness. If this visual kicks open the door to greater awareness when families sit down to eat, it's done its job.

  • 1goodpotato

    Considering how little people like to *think* and intellectualize what they're eating--it is a primarily sensual experience, after all--a "brain dead" design is actually the best solution for the topic.

  • David

    Its total chart-junk, the need to simplify current nutritional charts is a wicked challenge but this is not the solution. Design like this doesn't get a passing grade in school, why should America accept it nationwide. We should give our kids more credit, I think they can handle a little more information than some meaningless gradients floating around a plate. 

  • Greg Valou

    Not only is the design brain-dead but so is the promotion of grains and "low fat" foods (especially dairy) for obesity prevention.  

  • Steven Leighton

    I agree with Lawrence from an hour ago.
    If you still don't get it ayou could sk your daughter.
    And as for a chef at the school .. in my kids Montessori THE kids make their mid morning snack together .. no boxed food -- I think you need to look into a Montessori that makes meal time learning time; if you're paying sooooo much.

  • Shane Guymon

    I think instead of looking at what our kids are eating we should focus on what are kids are doing. More and more kids are choosing to stay inside and play video games then go outside and actually play. Kids need more exercise.

  • C.Gaggia

    I wonder what the Fluid Milk Advisory Board had to pay to get that dairy moon to orbit the globe of "protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables." When I was in grade school (1976 -1983) I believe all of the "educational" materials on nutrition were supplied by the beef and diary industry. Probably explains why nothing could be eaten without butter on it when I was a kid. 

  • Bobotron50

    Portion size and some examples are necessary to help a kid out. I dunno, but whomever made this video should at least do a spell check. 2:39.

  • LB

    I don't think you are being fair, Rick. The image you showed to your "people on the street" was clearly not meant to explain and inform, but rather to generate interest and motivate visits to the web site, where everything is made clear. I bet that if you included all the information that was on the pyramid, you would suggest that the plate device was too complicated.
    Had you asked the street people whether they thought the image, in context, would motivate them to go to the web site to get more information, I am sure you would have heard different answers.

  • Annhy Shim-Morel

    Design snobbery, which we Fast Co. readers all are guilty of, has it's place indeed. But when we are faced with a nation of unhealthy eaters, rising Type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity rates- we must embrace and rely on the simplest and clearest of graphic icons- although ugly in our eyes- to address the nation as a whole. Not everyone knows their Andao from their Hadid, or their Rand from their Knolls. This is something that everyone needs to be made aware of- so let's applaud the USDA for their efforts- begrudgingly or not. :)

  • Mike...

    Calling it "brain-dead" seems overly harsh to me.  

    I don't think the intent of the design was to be the sole source of nutritional guidance and information.  Sure, they might want to tweak some things, iterating can be a wonderful thing, especially if HCD principles can be used to address common needs.

    However, I think most people agree that myplate is certainly a better starting point than the food pyramid.  At least the author conceded that the effort was "well-intentioned."

    I think it's also important to acknowledge that any design has to navigate some tricky constituencies.  I mean, can you imagine the outcry from dairy producers if the circle for dairy had been omitted?

    I guess this article is further evidence that no design or infographic can satisfy everyone.  

  • Carscott1

    For a snap shot in our attention challenged society, I think the new plate conveys the most important elements in a quick glance. For those wanting more they click and drill down for more detail.  It's ironic how simple to understand graphics are universally applauded but this nutrition education issue seems inextricably tied to the word "failure".  Perhaps Mr. Barrack can apply his creativity and resources to delivering a truly inspirational graphic with all the requisite simplicty and detail. 

  • ryan r

    Wow....that may be the LEAST thoughtful / balanced analyses I've ever seen. But you have to love the irony, as the most brain-dead thing about this article is the design sense of its author.

  • David R.

    Ambiguity offers the benefit of not offending any of the farmers and producers that USDA serves.

  • Connor

    If a plate is the size of a normal dinner plate (9in diameter?) then this shouldn't be confusing at all. Not sure why we're looking for further meaning in the first place...

  • Rick

    Gotta agree with Bre as well - easy to understand.  As for parents looking for more information re: portions, there is no dearth of information out there.

    For parents and kids who are not able to access more information an idea of a simple way to add portion size would be to have icons in each segment, e.g. a banana, apple and grapes to represent the suggested 3 portions of fruit.