Mariella Funk of Operation Food Search held up a picture of the Choosemyplate.gov icon recently to help teach her audience about nutrition.
Funk teaches nutrition classes for a St. Louis food bank and uses the image as a teaching tool. It's a dinner plate with a simple message: More than 75 percent of your plate should be vegetables, fruits and grains, while the remainder should be protein and dairy.
"It's a lot more user-friendly than the food pyramid," Funk said. "It's most of the same information, but it's easier to understand. The food pyramid wasn't a good guide without the help of a food specialist."
As she teaches, a "food pyramid" manual is on her table, but it's all words, no graphics.
Choosemyplate.gov replaced the food pyramid, also called Mypyramid.gov, this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted something that was clearer about healthy meals, said Robert Post, deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in Washington. Mypyramid.gov now redirects visitors to Choosemyplate.gov.
"We became aware that the food pyramid ... didn't inspire consumers to make good food choices," Post said. "The pyramid is a great teaching tool in a classroom, but for an everyday prompt, it didn't have the same effect."
"It's simpler; it's a review, going over the things we need to keep ourselves healthy," said Bertha Bridges, 73, of St. Louis, one of Funk's students. "With this, there's no guesswork." The divided plate isn't new. Several companies for years have put out divided plates with the message to eat more fruits, vegetables and grains, a moderate amount of dairy products and less meat.
One expert said the simplicity might be overdone.
The gap is in what it doesn't say, said Marjorie Sawicki, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University.
For example, "It doesn't emphasize water," she said. "We need to get enough water and physical activity."
Choosemyplate.gov doesn't address weight loss, she said.
"How big is the plate?" Sawicki said. "I'm trying to think of how people might view the plate; this could be a nine-inch plate or a 15-inch plate."
She'd also like to see more information with respect to "cancer risk and chronic disease and beverage choices," she said.
"And how will this work in areas of food insecurity?" she said. Food insecurity refers to the threat of malnutrition, or in underdeveloped countries, starvation.
Still, Sawicki said, as she works with nutrition programs in rural, southeastern Missouri, she has found that the icon connects with people better than the Food Pyramid.
"This shows how to divvy up the plate to get the message across," she said. "One of the messages we teach is to eat more fruits and vegetables," she said. "People seem to grasp Myplate better."
For the Choosemyplate.gov concept to be successful, she said, it needs to work with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.
The Dietary Guidelines manual is the USDA's most up-to-date information about nutrition and healthful living at the time it's published.
Connie Diekman, head of nutrition for Washington University and past president of the American Dietetics Association, said she liked the focus on eating for health.
"Studies support that focusing on eating and exercise for weight generally are efforts that fail," she said. "When we focus on health it's hard to quit or give up. Weight loss follows those efforts."
Still, use of the icon must be linked with the dietary guidelines, she said.
Otherwise, "When you look at Choosemyplate, it's a structure and framework but it's still about individual choices," she said.
Post, of the USDA, said the Choosemyplate.gov symbol was never meant to stand on its own. It only "opens the door to awareness," he said.
The response has been good, he said.
About 3,300 grass-roots groups have joined a "partnership" with the USDA to teach the principles of the icon, he said. An additional 45 national organizations have endorsed it, he said, including the American Dietetics Association and American Medical Association.
After the Web site started in June, it has had 1 million visitors the first week, 2.5 million since its inception and 9 million page views. Post expects the number to increase now that school has started.
The USDA plans a Spanish-language version of the Web site and to add tools that examine the nutritional value of 9,000 foods, fresh and processed, Post said.
The appeal is, "It puts the individual in the driver's seat to make a change," Post said.