Understanding Portion Sizes

In 2011, with much fanfare, the USDA unveiled MyPlate, the redesigned successor to MyPyramid, the so-called food pyramid that assigned nutritional value to the different food groups. Like MyPyramid, MyPlate assigns different values to the different food groups, with vegetables taking up roughly half the plate, followed in diminishing portion size by grains, protein and fruits. A cup representing dairy products sits at the side of the plate.

The idea was to make the dietary guidelines easier to read — looking at portions on a plate is more logical than dissecting the lines on a pyramid — and easier to implement. MyPlate encourages Americans to eat more vegetables, fruits and grains, and shows which foods should be eaten more sparingly.

The USDA also added to the MyPlate icon a SuperTracker, an online program that evaluates a person’s daily diet for caloric and nutritional intake and helps set goals for weight and exercise. As you enter the items eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the SuperTracker adds up the calories and assesses whether you have met, exceeded or fallen short of the suggested allowance in each food group.

While most Americans know what they’re supposed to eat to improve their diet, getting them to actually change their habits can be a slow, uphill trek, said some area dieticians.

On the plus side, the USDA’s MyPlate program is a huge improvement over the pyramid, with more detailed analysis and interactive features that allow you to design your own diet plan according to your age, sex and weight, as well as desired outcomes such as weight loss or maintenance.

But there are still issues of access to computers, misunderstandings about portion sizes and the diminished culture of home cooking. And powerful food corporations blanket the media with ads for processed meals higher in sodium, fats and sugar, despite pressure from consumers and health professionals that has brought about such innovations as showing calorie counts on fast food or chain restaurant menus.

“The USDA SuperTracker is a nice way to start out,” said Stacy Pelletier, a clinical dietician at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph. “It’s nice because they set it up so that you can do bar graphs. It’s a really nice visual,” Pelletier said. The disadvantage, she added, is that “we still have a chunk of the population that isn’t computer savvy.”

And how many Americans who do use computers actually go online to MyPlate.gov to read the information there? What is meant by, say, five servings of vegetables or three servings of fruit per day? How does that translate to eating an apple, or six stalks of asparagus?

“I do think the MyPlate website is very good and very detailed but I don’t know a lot of people who have accessed it. I think it was the USDA’s attempt to simplify the meal but I don’t think the public really understands it,” said Amy Tuller, a registered dietician who has a practice in Norwich and also consults with local hospitals, nursing homes and with Cioffredi & Associates in Lebanon, which offers physical, occupational and massage therapy, and nutrition and diet advice.

Tuller advocates for more public service announcements and ads to make Americans more aware of MyPlate.gov. “If it was more readily available in the media, it would be a great start,” she said.

There are constant challenges to educating the public on a healthy diet and appropriate portion sizes, she said. Although some schools teach diet and nutrition, Tuller said that a more concerted push is needed.

The pervasive problem, Tuller added, is that the “big food industry is so powerful that people are getting messages about what they should be eating in the media. We don’t often see ads on TV for broccoli, or how many portion sizes I should be eating. People are constantly bombarded with advertising for big food companies.”

The changes in society have also led to a culture where home-cooked meals are not the norm anymore. Pelletier said that among the patients she sees, older people are more used to the idea of cooking at home, and familiar with such standard cooking terms as sauté. In contrast, younger people “didn’t grow up doing a lot of cooking,” she said. “They don’t have the cooking skills. ... it’s almost like a foreign language.”

Even if most Americans want to eat a healthy diet, the issue of how much to eat can be confusing. Dieticians call it portion distortion. Over the past three decades, the supersizing of meals and sodas, and even dinner plates, has made eating and drinking too much, too easy. So how do people adjust their expectations of a healthy portion size?

A person’s daily calorie allowance varies according to age, sex and weight. But the average allowance is around 2,000 calories, said Mary Saucier Choate, food and nutrition educator at the Co-op stores in Hanover and Lebanon. Start thinking in cups and ounces, rather than servings. If you ball up your fist, that is roughly a cup.

“If I have someone who doesn’t have the Internet and they’re just really not a computer person, we’ll talk in terms of common objects,” such as a deck of cards or a baseball, said Pelletier.

“Sometimes I just get out the measuring cups and show people what a half-cup serving size looks like. I have a deck of cards in my office, I sometimes use food models to show what portions look like on the plate,” Tuller said.

Decades of apparently conflicting diet studies reported by the media — low-fat, no-fat, low-carb, no-carb, high-protein, lean protein — have also misled people.

“If you stick to a basic (diet of) more fruits and vegetables and leaner foods, that thread doesn’t change a lot,” said Ellen Lewis, a dietician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

And despite myriad cultures and cuisines, that basic equation doesn’t change much. “You go to any country’s food guidance and it’s going to be similar to MyPlate. It’s not like humans everywhere need something different,” Choate said. “What you need is to eat a variety of whole foods that are lightly processed, or not processed.”

If a person starts with two or three relatively small goals, such as increasing a daily serving of vegetables from a half-cup to a cup, or reducing the amount of sugar in a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, those are concrete achievements.

It’s difficult to achieve a perfect diet, said Pelletier, but it’s not so difficult to improve it. “We’re trying to make small changes over time.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.