Back off. It’s my plate.

Walter Olson Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
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Yesterday the USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the government’s new nutritional chart, which you can check out at the suggestively nannyish URLs MyPlate.gov or ChooseMyPlate.gov (“Please, guv, could you choose my plate? You know best.”) It’s a sort of segmented cafeteria dish with unequal compartments, slightly larger for “vegetables” and “grains,” slightly smaller for “fruits” and “protein,” along with a “dairy” circle on the side. A few thoughts:

1.) They seem to have skipped the whole “constitutional authority for the federal government to involve itself in lecturing citizens on what to eat” section. Could it be because there is no such obvious source of authority?

2.) Given that the government has been coming out with these charts for decades, this one is admittedly easier to understand than the awful “pyramid” that came before. Pretty much any graphic they tried — even one based on a Jackson Pollock painting — would have been an improvement on that darn pyramid.

3.) There’s a subliminal sort of cleverness to the chart which may offer insight into the Obama administration’s thinking. It manages not to mention meat, for instance. It makes “dairy” a little blue circle so you think of nonfat milk or yogurt instead of, say, melted cheese. There’s no dessert plate at all — this is the pie chart that doesn’t want you to eat pie. There’s also no mention of sugar or calories on the graphic, apparently on the theory that if people don’t see those things on a government chart, they’ll forget they like them.

4.) While clever, it’s also a bit incoherent: along with food groups like grains and veggies, there appears a slice for “protein,” even though there’s protein in grains, dairy and so forth.

5.) Like all such recommendations out of Washington, including earlier versions that did more to push cheese and starch options, this one came out of negotiations that reflected input from farm and producer interest groups. Just something to remember before taking nutrition advice from the federal government, especially since that nutritional advice has often been wrong in the past.

6.) Accompanying the chart is a series of confidently dished-out advice tips on various other nutritional matters, such as “Enjoy your food, but eat less,” “Switch to fat-free or lowfat (1%) milk,” and “Choose the foods with lower [salt content].” Confident though these may be, these are simply wrong, at least if indiscriminately applied to anyone and everyone. Not all of us struggle with obesity or high blood pressure; some of us, in fact, including some who are elderly or infirm, should be encouraged to get all the calories we need. Serving kids nonfat milk is not an unambiguously good choice if it means they will choose to drink less milk. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that low-salt diets may pose their own health risks. For that matter, some people — some whole national cuisines, in fact — manage to take in an adequate nutritional balance while dispensing entirely or nearly so with categories like dairy or fruit.

7.) The wider controversy is going to be not over the chart itself, but how far the administration will go to pursue the rapidly expanding agenda of the “food policy” sector. All sorts of nannyish and coercive ideas are emerging from that sector nowadays: proposals at the FDA to limit salt content in processed foods; mandatory calorie labeling, which poses a significant burden on many smaller food vendors and restaurants; new mandates on food served in local schools; advertising bans; and on a local level efforts to ban things like Happy Meals at McDonald’s. No wonder many parents, local officials and skeptics in Congress are beginning to say: Back off, guv. It’s my plate.

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and is the author of Schools of Misrule: Legal Academia and an Overlawyered America (2011).