By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Fewer than one in four U.S. adults follow the agriculture department’s “MyPlate” dietary guidelines, but those who do have much healthier eating habits.

For the study, researchers examined nutrition data on a nationally-representative sample of 3,194 adults who were surveyed about their eating habits between 2011 and 2014. Overall, just 731 participants, or about 23 percent, followed MyPlate dietary guidelines or MyPyramid, an older version of these recommendations.

People who followed MyPlate or MyPyramid consumed fewer daily calories (2,120 versus 2,333) on average and had diets higher in whole grains and green vegetables and lower in fats and added sugars than participants who didn’t try to adhere to these dietary guidelines.

“The dietary guidelines provide a user-friendly plan for people who are interested in learning how to eat healthy,” said study coauthor Jacqueline Vernarelli of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

“Unlike popular fad diets, the dietary guidelines for Americans are evidence-based and created by a multidisciplinary team of scientific experts,” Vernarelli, who did the work at Fairfield University in Connecticut, said by email. “Furthermore, they are designed specifically to be flexible and able to be adapted to any budget, taste preference, or genre of food.”

More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, increasing their risk of chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The now defunct online MyPyramid dietary tool helped people set customized eating plans based on their age, sex and weight and recommended ideal amounts of each food group. Its replacement, MyPlate, offers visual cues for food-group portioning with sections of a plate representing how much of each food group people should consume. (

While some previous research suggests that tools like MyPlate and MyPyramid have helped clinicians explain ideal eating habits to patients, it’s been less clear whether this translates into people actually using these tools or how doing this might impact the quality and quantity of foods people consume.

In the current study, researchers asked participants to recall everything they consumed over a 24-hour period. They also asked whether people had heard of MyPlate or MyPyramid and had tried to follow these guidelines. Among those who had heard of MyPlate, about one third said they had tried to follow its individualized plan.

People who tried to follow these guidelines consumed an average of 78 grams of total fat and 24 grams of saturated fat a day, compared with 88 grams of total fat and 28 grams of saturated fat, on average, for participants who didn’t follow guidelines. Saturated fats in foods like red meat, butter and cheese are the “bad” kind that can contribute to high cholesterol and weight gain.

Those who followed the guidelines also consumed fewer added sugars on average: 18 teaspoons daily versus 21 teaspoons daily for people who didn’t follow guidelines. Added sugars can increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Following guidelines was also associated eating more items like whole grains and green, leafy vegetables, the researchers report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Individuals who tried MyPlate or MyPyramid had an average of 1.1 ounces of whole grains and 0.2 cups of vegetables daily, compared with 0.8 ounces of grains and 0.1 cups of veggies for people who didn’t follow the dietary guidelines.

The study wasn’t designed to prove whether following the guidelines might directly translate into a lower risk of disease. And most people in the study still didn’t meet daily recommended minimum amounts for key food groups.

“It is not surprising that those who do use the dietary guidelines, who may be people who have an interest in nutrition and health, and/or use the dietary guidelines for educational purposes, consume a healthier diet,” said Samantha Heller, a nutritionist at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

“The issue is how to get the information to the majority of Americans in ways that are relatable, understandable and actionable,” Heller, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

SOURCE: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online December 15, 2018.