Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new MyPlate icon a good tool to get Americans to eat healthier?
This revamp of the Food Guide Pyramid is a step in the right direction because it recasts the concept in a form consumers are more likely to grasp. (Click here for a MyPlate feature story.)
Even more eye-catching, of course, would be to present MyPlate in a form Americans really understand: a reality TV show in which people try to follow MyPlate dietary guidelines in the face of temptations. What could be more American?
If you think that's too extreme for government, you're right. But at least one media personality already has put MyPlate to a week-long reality test of sorts and relayed the experience in real-time using social media.
CNNhealth.com's Madison Park, writer and producer, aimed to find out if MyPlate is practical and affordable. She committed herself to a self-imposed diet with ground rules: Eat as closely to the MyPlate concept as possible, spend only $61.27 the entire week, and integrate the challenge into dining out as well. She tweeted her feedback the entire week at @MadisonCNN.
Her experiences are instructive for supermarkets because they provide clues to how food retailers can help consumers eat healthier.
First, Park wanted to discover if eating the MyPlate way is affordable. She chose a budget of $61.27 based on government data for average food expenditures per person. She shopped mainstream stores because that's what she believed average Americans can afford. She frequented stores more often than usual to get the best deals.
Even so, she ran into cost challenges, partly because she was determined to include some eating out to make the experiment more realistic. Her final spend for the week was $65.30, just a bit over her $61.27 budget.
There were also lifestyle issues. Park labored to adapt new foods into her daily routine so she could meet MyPlate criteria, which includes making half your plate fruits and vegetables, a concept still foreign to many consumers. She even used a bento box to compartmentalize foods. The problem was these foods weren't as convenient to eat as snack bars or burgers, so she had to learn how to eat more slowly.
It takes time to adapt to all these new routines, she found. “At first, the challenge seemed daunting,” she said in a CNN post. But eventually she realized: “It gets easier. Promise.”
Supermarkets should help make it easier. They need to underscore affordability by promoting sharply priced, healthier options and even creating value meal bundles that incorporate MyPlate choices. Also helpful would be identifying options that are more convenient to consume.
And retailers should play the roles of cheerleader and educator for MyPlate, which some have already begun to do. Supermarkets can promote the icon, concepts and USDA resources through in-store signage, social media and other means.
That's the kind of support that will distinguish supermarkets as the outlet doing the best job of serving up MyPlate.