Want a signed book?
Football madness

Return this plate, I want my pie chart

Reader Brad E. reminds me about the USDA's attempt to "improve" the visual presentation of dietary standards. As reported here, the food pyramid failed its mission and is retired. Here comes MyPlate!

According to this report, the government wants to impart these key points:

  • MyPlate offers a visual reminder to make healthy food choices when you choose your next meal.
  • It can help prioritize food choices and remind us to make fruits and vegetables half of our plates each meal.
  • On the other side of the plate – and beside it – we see the other important food groups for a healthy meal: whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat dairy.

We have been warned not to think of this as a pie chart.

What do we call a circular chart in which the area of the circle is partitioned into separate regions?


How does one say return MyPlate to the kitchen fast enough? The biggest problem here is that the key points are out of sync with the chart details. The MyPlate diet, as depicted, has less than the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables! Since those two important food groups only equal grains and proteins, the presence of dairy means that fruits and vegetables form less than half of this diet.

The core message is that one should split one's diet in half, with fruits and veggies on the one side and grains, proteins and dairy on the other. If this is so, the following chart gets this point across with minimal probability of confusion:


If, on the other hand, the above chart is deemed too simple, and the message really does require proportions of each of the five food categories, then the sad truth is that a pie chart would have conveyed the message better.


MyPlate serves up strange portions that cannot be properly sized. How big is the "dairy" circle compared to any of the quadrants? How does one judge the irregularly-sized quadrants (grains and vegetables)? If there is any use for the pie chart, it is to display simple concepts with limited dimensions.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I actually think this diagram -- and i'd call it a diagram rather than a chart -- works pretty well, and shouldn't be judged for the (many, many) faults of pie charts just because it's evocative of one.

Sure, the areas aren't right, but if you don't look at it expecting it to be anything other than a statement about relative proportions and it's important that people think of it *while thinking about food*, i personally think that it works.

Yeah, the dairy thing is hard to compare to anything else -- but it's a glass next to a plate, and getting people to think about diary when they're choosing a beverage, that's got some value.

And I would suggest that the message that grains should outweigh proteins is told *better* in the plate than the offered replacement chart (redo #2). And that's a key point that the plate is trying to make.

Don't get me wrong -- i HATE me some pie charts. But the fork here isn't an accident. This thing is a mnemonic whose visual design is about something other than precise comparisons of proportion, and for me, it really works. It does the following:

  • Tells you what it's FOR without any words -- the fork and cup do that -- which is a good trick.
  • Tells you that you should be 50/50 green things vs. non.
  • Have more grains than proteins.
  • Remember dairy.

Yeah, it's got the problem that it's circular and divided into regions, but what you get in exchange for that confusion is a mnemonic about what you should be thinking about when you're thinking about eating.

Like most of the people reading, I hate all charts, but this, honestly, it doesn't bother me all that much. I think it conveys the desired info clearly and concisely, and with the added bonus of its form being a reminder of its content & purpose.

Benjamin Wenner

I think to better get the point across, the USDA should've just said, "Your plate full of food? Only eat one."

It's also very interesting how much grain intake suggestions has been downsized in recent years.


i still can't see why they didn't just use a cafeteria tray as the main metaphor. everything could have been rectangular. it would have looked more or less like a tree map, and they could have allowed a more detailed drill-down for people to play with.

Travis Bradshaw

This is analysis is off. The suggestion not to think of the new "food plate" as a pie chart is because... it's not a pie chart! It's a representational diagram. The purpose is not to have people compare the different sections of the diagram to each other (that would be the purpose of a pie chart), it's to have people compare the different sections of the diagram to their plate of food.

The biggest failure to read instructions is when the claim is made that the diagram fails to convey the supporting tips. But the tip is "half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables". This analysis says that the diagram fails to properly represent "half of your diet should be fruits and vegetables." Since that's not what the text read and they aren't trying to represent that, it's true that the diagram doesn't do so. They said "half of your plate", not "half of your diet." It's not an abstract representation of portion sizes, it's literally a plate.

The reality of this diagram is that it is not a chart. It doesn't convey the same information as a chart and the confirmation bias of someone that's in information science is the entire erroneous body of this article.

The idea of the food plate is actually much more simple: Charts are failing to get through to those that we need to educate about food. So we're abandoning charts entirely. This diagram says, "put the square block in the square hole, put the circle block in the circle hole," like the children's toy. If you understand the intricacies of a pie chart... you're not in the target demographic.

Mike Anderson

I agree with Henry, and I dig the jittered horizontal dividers that tell us to have more vegetables than fruit, more grain than protein, even if those are debatable. The dairy thing makes me crazy, though. Just when I was getting down with Pie Charts, along comes this contraption, which I can only think of as a Pie and Ice Cream Chart.

Philip Mair

The original plate chart looks nice, but like all pie charts it's difficult to judge the relative proportions. In fact, it's even more difficult because, unlike a pie chart, the plate chart doesn't have a centre point.

Personally I think a better chart is a horizontal bar chart in order, that way you can see exactly the relative proportions, without all of the problems of judging the size differences of a pie or plate chart.

Chris Pudney

I think the biggest problem with the "plate diagram" is that it fails to convey either of the two leading messages from the ChooseMyPlate.gov web-site:

- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Avoid oversized portions.

Without these, switching from a food pyramid to a plate diagram is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic...


What irks me is that "dairy", especially cheese, consists to a great extend of fat and tadaaa, protein, so I suppose by "protein" they mean fish and meat.
That nitpicking aside, I agree wtih Travis Bradshaw. It's not a diagram, nor it is supposed to be one, and gets the information across in a very tangible way. It's more of an instruction manual on how to fill your plate than an accurate comparison of numbers.

custom research paper

The people better perceive the color charts. You can use any kind of charts, but don't forgat make it color.


Hold on, fruit is red. Does that mean fruit is bad? Or that I only eat red fruit? And can I only drink dairy, not eat it? This chart doesn't work for me as a standalone set of guidance.

It's reminiscent of the European debate between Guideline Daily Amounts(industry-led, hard to understand) and Traffic Lights (consumer protection-led, easy to understand).

Coincidentally cheese is classified as a junk food in the UK.

Michael W Cristiani


Anyone here who happens to be Type 2 diabetic or live with someone who is, may be familiar with this diagram in its real-life, three dimensional equivalent. When you are first diagnosed, and sit for education, most worthy practitioners present you with an actual plate that is so divided. In fact, they often also contain three dimensional representations of the food types, which relate portion size; you can handle the objects and use them to accommodate your eating habits. Works great for its intended use. Many diabetics use the real-world aid, and would recognize the diagram as a two dimensional attempt to convey the same information.

As always,

Peace and All Good!
Michael W Cristiani

Ricky Connolly

If that isn't a pie chart then how on earth are you supposed to compare the proportions of, say, dairy to fruits? Are grains and vegetables the same proportion? What is it, like 27%?
You'd need the goddamn mental geometry faculties of Pythagoras to make use of that chart!


I find having dairy off on the side in its own little mini-chart isn't very helpful. If dairy is part of everything you eat, shouldn't it have a place among the other things you eat, so you get some sense of how much of your total diet is supposed to be dairy? I prefer a regular old pie chart.

area of a circle

The concept is explained using a pie chart and should abide by the pie chart rules. I think the charts suggested by the author are very simple and still very effective to convey the message. Kids in grade eight are very good to find the area of a circle and hence can estimate the percentage of each kind of food in the plate (a circle or a pie)

And I say when area of a circle is divided into different sections, it is a pie chart.

Gastric Bypass Man

The food pie chart is way better than the food pyramid I think. It's simplier and more easy to put the appropriate servings and proportions. Way to go.

The comments to this entry are closed.