Shape Up Your Plate to Manage Weight

Researchers agree that the American waistline is expanding, primarily because year after year we consume more calories than we burn through physical activity. While the goal of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight requires persistence and patience, the plate as a meal icon can serve as an easy-to-use tool to help Americans manage their calorie intake and thus help manage weight.

Researchers first brought to our attention the role of the plate as part of a strategy for managing caloric intake. This research revealed that an optical illusion based on the size of a plate (or bowl) or glass can cause us to misjudge serving sizes, leading to overconsumption of calories. It has been called the “large plate mistake.”

Not only the size, but also various elements on the plate can assist consumers in achieving their weight management goals. USDA’s MyPlate provides a visual cue that Americans can use to build a sensible, balanced diet by emphasizing consumption of lower-calorie, nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and low-fat dairy foods as well as appropriate portion sizes.

Nutrition communicators can use the plate as a starting point for conversations about weight management strategies. Consumer research from the International Food Information Council, the IFIC Foundation and the Dietary Guidelines Alliance provides valuable insights on weight management as they relate to elements of MyPlate, including nutrient-rich foods, protein and fiber.

Americans’ Concern with Their Weight

Findings from the 2011 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation Food & Health Survey demonstrate that a majority of Americans are concerned about their weight, and more than two-thirds report either trying to maintain or lose weight. Still, only 12 percent report that they are “extremely satisfied” with their progress. When asked what support they are using in their efforts to lose or maintain their weight, more than half of Americans say “nothing.” Easy-to-use visuals like USDA’s MyPlate and tools like the new SuperTracker can assist consumers with their weight management goals.

Use of MyPlate to Help Manage Weight

MyPlate emphasizes color and variety, simply presented as grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy. Appropriate portion sizes of these nutrient-rich foods are integral to weight management strategies because many provide higher amounts of needed nutrients with fewer calories and can help Americans meet nutrient recommendations while staying within an appropriate calorie range based on age, gender, body size and activity level.

While balancing calories (both consumed and burned) is paramount to weight management, findings from consumer research conducted by the Dietary Guidelines Alliance found that many parents struggle with calorie balance and often look to nutrient-rich foods as the most important element of their family’s diet. (See the article in this issue of Food Insight, “Helping Consumers Gain Clarity on Calories” for consumer-tested messages on calories.)

Parents participating in the Alliance research believe that nutrient-rich foods and beverages can be easily included in family meals. However, when asked for examples of nutrient-rich foods, only one or two examples of fruits and vegetables were readily suggested. Consistent with dietary guidance, nutrition communicators encourage consumption of a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods like whole grain breads and cereals, low-fat dairy products and protein sources such as lean meats and fish, eggs, beans and nuts in addition to fruits and vegetables. Yet, it is clear that consumers need assistance identifying a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods and beverages.

Protein and fiber can be found in many nutrient-rich foods, and research suggests an expanding role for these nutrients related to weight management.

Studies indicate that protein and fiber can help increase feelings of fullness, which may help with weight management by reducing overall calorie intake. According to the 2011 IFIC Functional Foods/Foods for Health Survey, when asked specifically about protein and fiber, 86 percent of consumers are aware that protein is thought to provide a benefit in weight management, and 64 percent are aware that fiber is thought to provide a benefit in weight management. Of those who said that they are aware of these diet and health relationships, more than half said that they are already consuming foods and

Beverages containing protein and fiber for these benefits. Less than four percent of Americans state that they are not interested in consuming foods and beverages for these benefits.

Americans need assistance visualizing the wide variety of grain, fruit, vegetable and protein options that are represented on MyPlate and how they fit on their plates. Because many individuals face multiple barriers, like lack of cooking and preparation skills and perceived taste aversions and/or expense, actionable guidance on how to purchase, prepare and serve these foods and beverages is greatly needed.  

Weight Management Options Abound

These consumer insights related to calories, nutrient-rich foods and beverages as well as fiber and protein demonstrate that education remains integral to helping Americans manage their weight. A singular focus on one approach to a sensible, balanced diet may not give consumers enough options to keep them focused or interested. Using MyPlate as a starting point for conversations about weight management can provide both consumers and practitioners with opportunities to discuss a variety of ways to include more lower-calorie, nutrient-rich foods, protein and fiber into the diet. In this way, MyPlate is both a visual cue and a blank canvas, inspiring consumers to incorporate many different food and beverage combinations and create a healthful diet that matches their taste preferences, budget and lifestyle. In addition to education on appropriate calorie and nutrient intake, efforts should also be made to stress the importance of physical activity as an equally important strategy to help balance calories and manage weight.


My Plate