If you’re still using the traditional food pyramid as a guide to eating, then the foundation of your diet is grains. They’re important, but grains shouldn’t be the base of your meals or eating patterns, says Gold’s Gym Wellness Director Connie Cheng.
“The food pyramid is the old way — it doesn’t tell you how your plate should look,” she says. “MyPlate shows you how to space out portions on your plate with a base of vegetables and fruit.”
MyPlate, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a visual reminder that a balanced meal is a healthy meal. Your plate should be divided into four nearly equal sections of fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains, with a cup of dairy on the side.
“Your body needs variety,” Cheng says. “Variety in a workout is important because your muscles will adapt to the exercise you do. It’s the same with the body and the nutrients it absorbs from food.”
With this updated guide, people can map out their plates to achieve that variety, regardless of where they are. Some to-go containers and disposable plates are already segmented, making smart decisions even easier.
Tips to building a healthy plate
Following MyPlate can still present challenges in making choices. For example, MyPlate includes dairy as a nutritionally beneficial food group, but it lacks guidance on navigating the different dairy products that can be loaded with sugars. You will commonly see added sugars in products like yogurt and packaged soft cheese.
Two quick ways to choose a brand of yogurt with less added sugar:
- Check the total carbohydrates section, which is divided into “dietary fiber” or “added sugars.” If the majority of total carbs is from added sugars, you can assume that it’s not the most nutritious choice.
- Check the ingredients section. If the first three ingredients listed are different words that mean sugar (corn syrup, fruit juice, corn sweetener, etc.), assume that most of the product is just added sugar.
But getting back to the main issue, how do you create and maintain nutritional balance and variety?
1. Use vegetables as a substitute for grains
If your meal calls for pasta, try spiralized zucchini or carrots instead of regular noodles. If your meal comes with rice, have half a sweet potato or an extra serving of green veggies instead. And since fruit isn’t always served on a plate with the rest of the meal, fill that space with vegetables, too.
2. Modify for dairy
If you’re lactose intolerant, you need nondairy sources of calcium and vitamin D. You can find them in these foods:
- Seeds (chia, poppy, sesame)
- Greek yogurt
- White beans
- Nuts, especially almonds
For vitamin D:
- Fortified foods (cereals, orange juice, some breads)
- Canned fish (sardines or salmon, with bones)
- Leafy greens (collard greens, spinach, kale, bok choy — just remember that substances called oxalates found in vegetables interfere with mineral absorption, so you would have to eat a high amount of minerals)
3. Make it colorful
“Phytochemicals in plants give them different colors, showing us that they have different nutrients,” Cheng says. “Eat the rainbow. It helps detoxify your body.”
Turn this tip into a game for kids by creating a color wheel and having them spin a few times. Whichever colors they land on are the colors of the vegetables you buy at the store or order at the restaurant.
4. Use a smaller plate
This is an especially helpful tip for holiday meals or buffet dinners where portion control becomes an issue. The smaller plate size will especially help in monitoring grains, since portions of that food group are the hardest to control. Serve yourself everything else first, Cheng says. “Then you’ll have less room for the things you’re tempted to overeat.”
Get more information and take the dairy, fruit, grains, protein and vegetable quizzes on choosemyplate.gov.