What's on your plate? Your answer determines how much nutrition you get. It affects your risk of many diseases and your chance of weight gain. Research keeps telling us more about how to eat to stay healthy. So the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has changed its advice on food through the years.
Not long ago, the USDA illustrated its advice with a pyramid. The shape was meant to show that you should eat more of the foods at the wide base of the pyramid and fewer of the foods in the narrower parts.
In 2011, the USDA changed this to something simpler — a plate.
Half of the plate is filled with vegetables and fruit. Grains and protein foods occupy the other side. A smaller circle stands for low-fat dairy products, such as milk. A website, ChooseMyPlate.gov, includes more information and tools to help people eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise and manage weight.
The experts at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health don't think ChooseMyPlate goes far enough in giving advice based on current research. So they created their own symbol, the Healthy Eating Plate. It also is supported by lots of information and advice.
Here are some of the USDA's tips:
- Balance calories with physical activity to keep a healthy weight.
- Enjoy your food, but eat less. Pay attention to your body's cues that say it's time to stop eating.
- Avoid oversized portions. Use a small plate or bowl, and take home part of your restaurant meal.
- Eat more vegetables and fruits. They should fill half your plate. For fresh stuff, find a farmer's market in your neighborhood.
- Make at least half of your grains whole grains.
- Switch to fat-free or 1% milk.
- Cut back on foods high in sugar, salt and solid fats. These include cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy, sweetened drinks, pizza and fatty meats such as ribs, sausages, bacon and hot dogs.
- Compare labels on bread, soup and other packaged foods. Choose the ones with lower sodium.
The USDA's ChooseMyPlate and Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate agree on most of the principles that can help you eat a healthy diet for a lifetime.
Whatever you eat, regular exercise can burn up any extra calories. That's a big help for keeping your weight in check. Staying active also can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and several other conditions.
That's why the Healthy Eating Plate includes a little silhouette of a runner, with the message "Stay Active!" ChooseMyPlate doesn't have an exercise icon. But the website includes sections on physical activity and weight control. So does the Harvard site.
Walk, dance, swim, garden or do whatever else moves you. Just try to be active at least 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
Whichever plate you choose, veggies rule. They get the biggest section, and together with fruits fill up half the plate. They provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that can help to reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Non-starchy vegetables are mostly low in calories, so they can help to control weight and prevent diabetes. (Starchy vegetables include potatoes, corn and plantains.)
For the most nutrition, go for variety, especially bright and deep colors. That includes dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, and the warm colors of carrots, winter squash and red peppers.
ChooseMyPlate counts potatoes as a vegetable. That's partly because they are a source of potassium, which can help to lower blood pressure. But there's no spot for spuds on the Healthy Eating Plate. That's because they are mostly starch, Harvard says. Potatoes are digested very quickly, sending blood sugar up in much the same way as sweets do.
Like vegetables, fruits provide valuable nutrients and fiber that help to keep you healthy. Go for variety — again, many colors — to get the most nutrients. Naturally sweet, fruit also makes a great dessert with no added sugar.
Whole fruit is better than juice because it contains fiber. The Healthy Eating Plate says it's best to limit juice to one small glass daily. With its natural sugars, juice can have as many calories as soda.
Did you know that eating whole grains (instead of refined grains) can lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes? Whole grains contain all parts of the grain. That means lots of fiber, which is good for digestion. Whole grains include oatmeal, brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta. Try some lesser known whole grains, too, such as bulgur and quinoa.
Refined grains have had parts of the grain removed. White rice, white bread and regular pasta are examples. These products may be "enriched," meaning some nutrients have been added back in. But you don't get the same benefit as with whole grains.
ChooseMyPlate says, "Make half your grains whole." The Healthy Eating Plate says to eat mostly whole grains and limit refined grains. Check the labels. They should list "whole wheat" or some other "whole" grain, not "enriched" flour. Watch out for "multi-grain" products. They're often made of mostly refined grains.
If protein, especially meat, is the star of your meal, it's time to switch it to a supporting role. About one-quarter of the plate should be enough.
The source of protein matters, too. Meats, especially red meats, may have high levels of saturated fat that can increase the risk of heart disease.
But you don't have to get protein from meat. Great sources include beans, lentils, nuts and tofu. They provide fiber as well as protein.
If you do eat meat, ChooseMyPlate says to pick the lean cuts. The Healthy Eating Plate recommends a weekly limit of 6 ounces for red meat — and no processed meats such as sausage and bacon. That's because people who eat red meat have higher rates of colon cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The link with processed meats is even stronger. So pick seafood, poultry or non-meat sources for lean, healthy protein.
Fat is not bad. Our bodies need fat, but it's important to eat the right kinds. Healthy fats are mostly oils, such as olive, canola and other vegetable oils. These are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Nuts and fatty fish, such as salmon, also contain healthy fats.
Saturated and trans fats tend to raise LDL cholesterol in your blood, which can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Meat, cheese and ice cream are among the foods containing saturated fat. Trans fats may be found in stick margarines, baked goods and deep-fried foods.
Both plates agree: Allow for healthy fats within your daily calorie total, but limit saturated fat. The Healthy Eating Plate says to avoid trans fats completely.
Drink water instead of sweetened drinks such as soda. You'll save on sugar and calories. ChooseMyPlate also urges people to drink non-fat or 1% fat milk. Why? It's a source of calcium and is usually fortified with vitamin D. Both of these strengthen bones and may help prevent osteoporosis.
The Healthy Eating Plate supports water, as well as coffee and tea — if you keep the sugar light. But there's no glass of milk next to this plate, which suggests no more than two cups of milk a day. Why? You can get calcium from many other foods. Some of the best sources include beans, tofu and greens such as bok choy. And some research suggests that high levels of calcium may increase men's risk of prostate cancer. For vitamin D, a supplement is recommended.