Knowing how to build a balanced plate and putting it into practice is one of the simplest yet most powerful health-enhancing practices you can have. By being mindful about including several food groups on your plate at meal time, you provide your body with the right mix of nutrients that not only keep your body systems functioning optimally but also help you feel satiated so you don’t feel the urge to eat more than your body really needs. Doing this one thing can help you control your weight, stabilize your mood, give you more energy, and reduce your risk of chronic disease.
If that’s the case, then why aren’t people talking about this? Why isn’t this tip plastered on the front of health magazines, talked about on social media, or advertised on TV like all the other trendy dieting tips and tricks? Because “balancing your plate” isn’t sexy or exciting. What is exciting are those bold, attention-grabbing claims like “drop 10 pounds in one week!” or “how to become a lean, mean, fat-burning machine.” As Registered Dietitian Toby Amidor puts it, “I have been preaching “portion control” and “eating in moderation” for years, but the message just isn’t as exciting as others out there.”
What do we have to do to get our messages heard? Use catchy and misleading headlines? Film our food videos in our underwear? (Don’t worry mom and dad, I won’t do that)
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Anyway, all this to say that while evidenced-based nutrition advice may not sound terribly enticing, I guarantee you that it is much more effective and sustainable than the information that currently saturates the media.
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The balanced plate method is one that Dietitian’s all over the world advocate for and is I think you’ll find that this whole eating healthy thing is much easier than you’ve been lead to believe.
HOW TO BUILD A BALANCED PLATE
Because balancing your plate requires that you understand the major food groups, we will start here.
1. KNOWING YOUR FOOD GROUPS
Notice how a few of these groups have two categories and pay attention to how you can use them to your advantage in the next section.
2. PUTTING THEM ON THE PLATE
Take a look at the plate below to see how these food groups fit on the plate. You should be including at least three of the five food groups on your plate at every meal. By balancing your plate this way, you include protein, fiber (found in the fruits, vegetables, and grains), and fat, the trio of nutrients that help you feel satisfied for several hours after a meal. This is called sustained energy — it gives us energy for a long period of time.
Notice how half the plate is made up of fruits and vegetables (or just vegetables if you don’t like to eat fruit at meals). That’s because these foods are loaded with nutrients that promote a healthy metabolism and keep cells healthy without a ton of calories. Hello, weight maintenance.
When choosing grains, it’s best to choose whole grains: whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, etc. But this doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat regular pasta again; balance your intake of both kinds and you won’t feel deprived. Also, notice how you can replace grains with starchy vegetables (corn, peas, potatoes, winter squash, etc) because they are both healthy sources of fiber-rich carbohydrates, the nutrient our brains and cells thrive on. Ever tried to cut back on carbs and felt like your brain wasn’t working? Yeah, that’s because your brain LOVES carbohydrates and requires it to in order to function optimally.
I’m not asking you to go vegan, but I am asking you to balance your animal and plant-based protein consumption. I’m not sure where the idea that we can only get enough protein from meat came from, but it’s been debunked time and time again. Plus, adding some plant-proteins in the mix reduces your cholesterol levels, makes bowel movements easier (reducing a slew of other medical conditions), and gets you additional nutrients that you otherwise can’t get with meat.
Lastly, dairy. Notice how I wrote in “optional.” You don’t need dairy at every meal but a few sources that are very beneficial to your gut are the fermented products like yogurt and kefir because they contain beneficial bacteria that once in our colon, can help with weight maintenance, improve the function of our immune system, and keep bad bacteria at bay, among other things. Also, notice the alternative dairy options you can choose should you have lactose intolerance or follow a plant-based diet. These are considered alternatives because they contain calcium and vitamin D just like regular dairy products would.
Sidenote: Fat isn’t a food group. It lives within certain foods found in several food groups. It’s important to include every day so I wanted to share where you can find them and how to add more of them to your plate.
Also, fat doesn’t make you fat. It just doesn’t work like that. You know what makes you fat? Fat-free foods. Isn’t that something? In order to make those fat-free products you see at the grocery store taste decent, food companies typically add extra sugar to make up for the loss in flavor. All that extra sugar is what caused people to gain so much weight during the “fat-free” craze of the 70’s and 80’s. So stop fearing fat and load up on the good ones you see in the chart above.
3. PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE
Here are a few examples of what a balanced meal could look like. Notice how the food groups included are checked off on the plate diagram. Remeber, aim for getting three out of five of the food groups on that plate:
Are you ready to put this into practice yourself? Go for it! Don’t worry about amounts just yet. Just play around with getting at least three of the five food groups on your plate, using foods you enjoy eating. We’ll talk about amounts a little bit later.
As always, have fun and enjoy eating 🙂