Michelle Obama’s “My Plate” Leaves Us Hungry


by Ophira Edut

Lights, camera, action! It’s…oh. It’s my middle school pamphlet on the five basic food groups, right? Wait, no, it’s my Weight Watchers tracker where I can enter what I just ate into an online widget. Cool! What? It’s not that? Oh, oh, now I see: it’s the First Lady’s big healthy eating initiative, ChooseMyPlate.gov, which was unveiled June 2nd. It’s shaped like a plate! With primary colors! And fruit and meat on the same dish! It’s the answer to that confusing food pyramid, they say. So why does this feel like more of a respin than a revolution?

Listen, I love the Obamas. I love Michelle O and her regal stature, her power arms and cool shift dresses that fuse 1940s housewife chic with corporate goddess toughness. I like that she’s made healthy lifestyles and exercise her pet cause, because this country needs it. We just happen to need it in a bigger, more attention-grabbing way than this underwhelming launch, if you ask me.

ChooseMyPlate.gov looks exactly like you’d expect something with the suffix “dot-gov” to appear. It’s super-basic, all-purpose (it even uses the term “general population”), and devoid of personality. The design is “meh” and some of the fonts render in a jagged way, like it was all dropped into one of those free web templates.

Buh-bye, Food Pyramid.

MyPlate is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s update to their 1992 Food Pyramid, which listed “Meat and Beans” rather than Proteins and “Milk” instead of Dairy. The updated plate graphic is a little easier to understand and apply. I imagine it being best suited to kids (perfect elementary school “health unit” fodder) or to people who have very little education on nutritious eating, cooking and self-care. Maybe it can also help those few souls living under rocks who still think a Big Mac is a complete meal because it has meat, grains, dairy and vegetables  (add a strawberry sundae for the fruit–bam!).

Here’s what I like about the site, and what I think could be improved. Nobody asked, but it’s America and this whole deal is being marketed as mildly patriotic (fight obesity! maintain our first-world nation status!)–so I’m gonna exercise a little free speech. Here goes.


What’s Good:

* Decent calculators & basic nutrition info.
The tools, though light, work. There’s a thorough encyclopedia of nutrition basics here that’s good to find all in one place. However, when I clicked on the Food Planner link in the Interactive Tools section, it took me to the MyPyramid Menu Planner, which is totally confusing. I thought we were done with the pyramid and using the plate now, guys. So why is this tool still here?

* Recipes are okay, too.
The recipe suggestions weren’t as generic as I thought they might be. Yes, there were all-American staples like pizza, lasagna and French toast. But kudos for listing a quinoa dish with slivered almonds and a spinach salad I might just make for lunch after I finish writing this. Knock off ten points for the recipes coming as a PDF, rather than as web text that can be pasted into an email, viewed on an iPad, or forwarded to that relative back home who eats Duncan Hines frosting straight from the tub (oh wait, that’s me).

Some personalization/customization.
You can enter your age, sex, weight, height and activity level to get a very basic plan for how much of each food group to eat to either a) maintain your current weight, or b) “gradually move toward a healthier weight” (props for using this body-friendly language). I was told to eat 7 ounces of grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 6 ounces of protein. I have to tell you, I have never in my life measured a grain, much less in ounces. Have you? What does an ounce of grain look like? Give it to me in slices, pasta handfuls, something I can eyeball, and I’ll be much more likely to do it. Honestly, Weight Watchers is light years ahead at recrafting the USDA guidelines into something real people can apply to our lives.

Room for Improvement:

* Um, social media, anyone?
Nary a Facebook or Twitter icon could be found on this site, except for a Tweet button that led me to a dead Twitter link. What if I wanted to share an article or tidbit? Send a shout-out? Follow them for new information? Nope.

* How about some video? Some real people and case studies?
Let’s get away from the government-issued vibe, shall we? This could be easily done by including a community element, letting people share their journeys and support each other. As much as we dislike The Biggest Loser, it still touches us because we identify with a real person sharing emotions and struggles. That’s why Weight Watchers or OA meetings work. Speaking of people, where’s Michelle Obama on this site? I’d like to see a warm welcome video on the front page with the first lady addressing me directly, firing me up about the whole mission of this. Michelle, save your modesty for your J. Crew wardrobe, por favor!

* Give the everyday person a call to action.
What can the average person do with all this scientific information about whole grains and whatnot? You can become a national strategic partner if you run an organization/company and want to help disseminate the new guidelines. Neato. But what about the average person who wants to get excited about implementing healthy eating in his/her life, and could use some encouragement? What about lonely folks who might band together if there was a community element here, even a Facebook page? This needs to be made into a glamorous cause, like Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. For goodness’ sake, if we can do that for illness (pink ribbon icons, commemorative stamps, national walks and celebrity endorsers), how hard can it be to do it for health? It’s so American: we make tragedy sexy and prevention frumpy. Hire a PR firm and get some slick PSAs, quick!

* I’d be overweight at 140 pounds? Nuh-uh.
I’m 5’2″ and packing some “baby weight” after giving birth last October. So when I entered my current weight of 165, I got a message telling me that I was over the healthy weight for my height range, which could put me at risk for certain diseases. Fair enough (and in further fairness, the site states that breastfeeding moms follow other guidelines). However, I wanted to see how low the USDA expected me to go. I kept getting this warning message until I hit 135, a weight that makes me look scary-skinny. I last saw 135 while I was eating mega-controlled portions of microwaved Jenny Craig, not exactly a sustainable lifestyle for me, nor one I want to pursue. Ever again.

I know, I know…it’s  easy to be an armchair revolutionary and critic, and I’ve done that. But this is tough love, Madame Obama, because we want you to succeed. So, let’s grab some sprouted grain bread and trans-fat-free oils, and hop into 2011. In a world of WordPress plugins and widgets, a Tip of the Day box does not an interactive revolution make. Today’s tip advises me to keep frozen and canned-in-water fruit in stock. I just kept thinking, “Haven’t we all read this a million times in Good Housekeeping or Glamour or O magazine? Isn’t there a way to present basic information to the masses without dumbing it down and packaging it in behind-the-times design? So please, USDA and Mrs. Obama, give people a little more credit. Give us some meat–er, protein–to grab onto. Here’s hoping that version 2.0 feels more alive and interactive. I’m still hungry.