A new icon designed to help consumers make healthier food choices is earning rave reviews from a registered dietitian, a student of nutrition and a weight loss leader. But for some others, it is a target of ridicule.

The MyPlate icon is a refreshing visual change from the well-known but abstract food pyramid that has been used since 1992, said Katie Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian for RiverStone Health. The new plate icon is divided into four sections for fruit, vegetables, grains and protein. A smaller circle sits beside it for dairy.

It is akin to the Create Your Plate method the American Diabetes Association uses to help diabetics manage blood glucose levels. Diabetics are encouraged to draw an imaginary line on their plate and focus on filling it with non-starchy vegetables and smaller portions of starchy foods and meats. There is no need for special tools or counting calories and carbs. It's simple and effective, Kirkpatrick said.

"My patients love it," Kirkpatrick said. "They can visualize it and it's something they can easily grasp."

She is confident that the MyPlate icon, which officially replaces the MyPyramid image as the government's primary food group symbol, will have a similar effect.

First lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin introduced the federal government's new food icon to promote consumers to think about building a healthy plate at meal times. It is one of the building blocks of Michelle Obama's campaign against obesity.

The nudge of a 21st century icon as a reminder to consumers to make healthier food choices is especially welcome in Yellowstone County, where the rate of overweight or obese adults has increased 10 percent during the past five years to 73 percent, Kirkpatrick said. Additionally, 12.1 percent of Yellowstone County residents suffer from diabetes and high blood sugar, which is higher than both the state average of 6.8 and the national average of 11.1, according to the 2010 Community Health Assessment.

The MyPlate method is not a cure-all to eradicating obesity, Kirkpatrick said. However, "It's one piece of the puzzle. A lot of things need to happen to reverse the obesity epidemic."

Laurel Parsons of Lockwood is the South Central Area captain for TOPS Club, Take Off Pounds Sensibly, a nonprofit weight-loss support and wellness education organization. She enthusiastically supports the new icon and what it represents. "This is exactly how I lost 85 pounds," she said. "This is how (TOPS members) have divided our plates for years."

Barbara Wells of Billings isn't buying it. She said the USDA has introduced so many changes in the food guidelines that people no longer take them seriously.

Justin Hutchinson, 22, of Billings said the icon will be fodder for laughter and not much else. "I'm still going to go to Taco Bell for dinner even if (I) did see the plate. It would be better and more accurate if they used the Golden Arches and broke that up into food groups."

Michele McCowan of Emigrant is studying to become a nutritionist and registered dietitian and works with schools to create a better nutrition plan for schoolchildren. She said the new plate is a start but unless people are willing to make the change, take responsibility to educate themselves and do the work, the icon will not make a difference.

"It's up to the individual," McCowan said. "It's also up to the government to help educate. And, until they subsidize the produce and whole grain farmers, people won't take the advice. I am happy they are heading in a better direction, but it's not enough."

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.