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What Might Be Missing From MyPlate? Water

January 12, 2015

Sometime in the next few weeks, we’ll be hearing from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The panel of nutrition experts is tasked with reviewing the latest science on nutrition and medicine and making recommendations on how to update the next version of the federal government’s guidance on eating.

A lot of people are eagerly awaiting this report, including a group of scientists keenly interested in what the panel has to say about what we’re drinking. Since the last version of the guidelines was released in 2010, more evidence has piled up showing the benefits of drinking water and the harm that can come from drinking sugary beverages.

Of course, there are lots of ways to spread public health messages like “drink water, not soda.” But this faction of scientists, led by a couple of folks at the University of California’s Nutrition Policy Institute, has its sights set on adding a water icon to MyPlate, the image of a plate divided into portions that replaced the food pyramid in 2011. (The plate already has a circle to represent dairy, so the water circle would be an addition, not a replacement for the recommended dairy beverage.)

“Consumption of sugary beverages is the leading contributor to added sugar in the American diet,” says Christina Hecht, senior policy adviser at the UC Nutrition Policy Institute and one of the water advocates. “If people could make that one change to drink water to quench their thirst instead of sugar beverages, that would solve a big piece of the problem.”

Most Americans never actually read the Dietary Guidelines, Hecht notes, but that MyPlate image is pinned to the walls of thousands of school and hospital cafeterias and myriad other public institutions.

“MyPlate is used so extensively for nutrition education around the country, and it’s a positive promotional message,” says Hecht.

Hecht, along with Kelly Brownell of Duke University and Barry Popkin of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently submitted a letter to the panel making the case for including stronger language on water as a substitute for soda and other sugary beverages, and for the addition of the water symbol.

The next step, Hecht says, is to wait for the report, and if it does call for changes to how the guidelines treat beverages, then she and her fellow advocates will try to mobilize a flood of comments in favor of the water icon. Their hope is that later this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which came up with MyPlate, will agree to the suggested changes to the graphic.

“Asking for a change in the MyPlate graphic is a big ask,” Hecht says. “But I am feeling a little optimistic; it seems to me that the climate is very favorable for this.”

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