Plain Language Win: USDA’s

Eat more vegetables.

Use a smaller plate.

Eat foods with ingredients your great-grandmother would recognize.

Simple, right?

How about this: Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

That last one comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Surprised by the simplicity?

Earlier this month, the USDA replaced its food pyramid with a plate. Divided into four segments, the plate shows fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein, with a glass of dairy on the side. Unlike the more conceptual pyramid, the plate is a familiar mealtime visual. Like the graphic, the accompanying messaging is also straightforward—seven bullets, organized under three headings: balancing calories, foods to increase, and foods to reduce. Each of the key consumer messages, as USDA calls them, is a short, simple sentence, like “Enjoy your food, but eat less.”


Nutritionists and other food experts have mixed opinions on the graphic’s effectiveness. Depending on your politics, you may distrust the new guidance, you may be in full support of it, or you might think the government has no business offering it. But from a content perspective, the plate succeeds where the pyramid(s) did not.

Here are two reasons why:

1. The language is simple (or at least simpler than it was).

You can make positive, healthy changes just by paying attention to the key consumer messages. Of course if you want to dig deeper, the USDA offers a wealth of information on food groups, subgroups, nutrients, and serving sizes. If you want detailed information on how much of which type of vegetable you should be eating, you will need to reference a chart, do some math, and plan and measure your meals for the week. But you could also improve your diet just by following the tip to “vary your veggies.”

2. uses terms and ideas we’ve been hearing from trusted non-government sources.

When Oprah tells us to “eat rainbow meals,” we do it, and not just because she’s Oprah. Making sure your food is colorful is easier than measuring servings and counting up nutrients. And what could be simpler than Michael Pollan’s guidance: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I read Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual while waiting for a friend at Kramerbooks bookstore—64 rules, skimmed in about 20 minutes. Because of their simplicity, many of the book’s 64 food rules have stuck with me. But ask me what the “half-cup equivalent“ of raw carrots is, and I’d have to look it up. Having key consumer messages that echo the simple advice we’ve been getting from Oprah, Pollan, and other public figures will make it easier for consumers to accept’s messages.

Could the USDA make its language even simpler and easier to understand? Some in the nutrition community argue that yes, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans policy document. From my personal experience working on content for the National Guard’s Guard Fit Challenge program and the YOU CAN School Program’s health and nutrition module, “cup equivalents” were harder to understand—and explain to a high school audience—than the “servings” that the USDA used to promote.

But just for the two reasons listed above, is a huge step forward. And the results have been immediate and measurable. Search Twitter for the hashtag #MyPlate, and you’ll see how citizens have started to interact with the plate, challenging themselves to eat according to the food icon and sharing photos and recipes with others. Congrats on the plain language and social marketing win, USDA!

Thanks to the plain language group on GovLoop for inspiring this blog post.

[This blog post was first published on the Rock Creek blog.]

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