Describing Meal Time

Dietary_guidelinesjpg

The USDA released their new dietary guidelines yesterday (2 June). 

And while there is no surprise in the recommendations that we eat more fruits and vegetables; what was refreshing was the new imagery for conveying the information.
Gone is the Food Pyramid and in is the Food Plate. 
This new visualization overall makes a lot more sense since:
1) As the Wall Street Journal stated today (3 June 2011), “People don’t eat off a pyramid, they eat off a plate.”  In other words, this is something we can relate to at meal times.  
2) The plate here is used like a pie chart to easily show what portion of our meals should come from each food category. For example, you can clearly see that fruits and veggies makes up a full half of the plate. (Boy, I’m sure there are a lot of smiling moms and dads out there today, saying I told you so!) Also the role of protein in a healthy diet is reaffirmed with almost a full quadrant itself. 
I am not sure why this initiative, according to the WSJ, cost about $2.9 million and three years to accomplish, since the representation seems fairly straight forward (unless some of that went to modifying the nutritional guidelines themselves).
In any case, I think we can all be glad they got rid of the 2005 version of the food pyramid that “left many baffled” as to what they were trying to say.
Still even in this new visualization, there are confusing aspects, for example:
1) Greater than a Pie–The Dairy piece is separate and off to the right of the plate. I would imagine that this is supposed to represent something like a glass of milk, but it is odd in this picture, since it takes away from the pie chart presentation of the plate where theoretically all the food groups on the “pie plate” would add up to 100%.  Here, however, the Dairy plate (or glass) is off to the side, so we have something like 120% total–confusing!
2) Missing Percentages–The actual recommended percentages are not noted in the diagram. This type of information had previously been provided in the 1992 Food Pyramid through the recommended servings. Where did they go?  I would suggest they annotate the pie slices for each food group with the actual recommended percentages, so that we have the imagery of the slices, but also have a target number to go with. Helpful, if you are counting your calories (and food types) on a diet. 
In short, information visualization can be as important as the information itself–with information, having quality data is critical or else you have “garbage in, garbage out.”  Similarly, with information visualization, you can take perfectly good information and portray it poorly and confuse the heck out of folks–in essence making the resulting information into potential garbage again. 
This is why efforts such as the Choose MyPlate are important to help us communicate important information effectively to people, in this case so they can eat and live healthier lives. 
I think the new Food Plate is generally effective at presenting the information and I support this effort wholly, but I’m still looking forward to version 3.1.

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