simple steps to create a healthier plate
Nutrition is important. Not surprising.
But let me add, in that same breath, that the confusion around nutrition makes it seem a lot more confusing and challenging than it needs to be. Well-being and the entire wellness industry is obsessed with optimization. Eat this, don’t eat that. Eat more of this at a certain time of day, but not at another time of day. Drink this, add that, remove this. You get the idea.
And as someone who’s been part of this industry, either personally as a consumer or professionally, for 30 years, that mentality sucks.
What I hope to do in this piece is share some simple steps in how to create a better for you plate (and cup). Not all or nothing thinking, but rather an approach that can meet your needs, whether you eat out daily, cook every meal at home, eat fresh, organic veggies or open up a can of green beans with a side of rotisserie chicken and call it done.
And this isn’t some cop out, wave the white flag solution; it’s a tried and true method and strategy of eating (and drinking) that can do wonders in helping you feel better, look better and also not be riddled with anxiety inducing, attempting to optimize (and worry about) everything ideals.
Let me be very clear from the start. You don’t need to over optimize your diet, cancel or eliminate certain foods from your diet. What do I mean by that? Trying to control every ingredient, food, supplement and other tool to help you optimize wellness is unnecessary. And admittedly I fell into this trap early on in my career, particularly as a younger, single – I have nothing else to worry about – male.
I grew fast when I was first consulting with an NFL Player. He had just signed a 25 million dollar contract, needed to lose weight for his position and I made the mistake of assuming because he had the money, he would want a chef preparing his meals daily. Breakfast, lunch and dinner done for him and created meeting the exact specs that I laid out with the chef. Admittedly the athlete “said” that’s what he wanted. But a week in and I got a call from the Chef saying he threw out the entire fridge of prepared meals because the athlete was bringing home McDonald’s for every…single…meal. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and even some snacks.
That’s all this athlete knew. I didn’t attempt to meet him where he was, but rather attempted to completely change his entire identity. Sharp learning curve.
What I do know is delicious food – every single food in the world – has a role, since we don’t just eat for vitamins and minerals. Yes, that story may be a bit extreme, but there has to be a balance.
We eat for enjoyment, connection and just because. So if you’re early into your January resolutions and on the 100% abstinence plan, you can take a deep breath and let the guard down a bit. I won’t be telling you the exact foods you must eat or else.
All this said, there are some general principles that fit around building a better for you plate, understanding this isn’t an all or nothing strategy. With 100% confidence, I can tell you I’ll be eating pizza and enjoying a brew on Friday – well, every Friday to be honest. You know what else we do as a family? Start that same Friday in a bakery before the girls’ go to school. A tradition we call “donut Friday.” And I can assure you they’ll remember that vs the carrot sticks I might put in their lunch.
It’s the all or nothing thinking that leaves us conflicted and confused. If you ever thought “I’m good, I’m bad, I ate this, I shouldn’t have…” hopefully this gives you a little push in the right direction without continuing the negative headspace cycle.
OK, let’s get to it – that’s a lot of set up to give you the deets.
First, think about the general components of building a better plate most of the time.
You want some color on the regular – mostly from a variety of produce, rather than from bowls of Froot Loops, M&M’s or Cheeze-Its. Fiber from whole grains is a wise idea, as is lean protein. Let me expand on each.
Let’s start with produce.
Vegetables and fruit offer you so many nutrients it’s impossible to replace them, even if promised by your favorite supplement company. Most experts, governing bodies and research have found that aiming for at least 5 servings daily will help reduce your risk of various diseases, as well as provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that make them big time winners.
Rather than talk about total servings, though, I like to encourage people to aim for filling up half their plate with produce. If you’re eating out of a bowl, add a handful or two of berries, enjoy an orange on the side or cut up some banana on the cereal. Drinking out of a blender? Same thing–aim to add a handful or two of produce and blend to delicious oblivion. Research does suggest more is better when it comes to produce, but at the same time, if you’re reading this and thinking you currently eat just one or two servings daily, how can you get just a little bit more? One more serving. A little bit goes a long way, so aiming to do slightly better is amazing because progress is greater than perfection.
Now that we’ve covered produce, let’s move to protein.
It’s often said, start with produce and protein and build from there. Sometimes, yes – that’s a great strategy. Other times, meh. Not so much.
Regardless, let’s talk protein, which can mean animal sources like chicken, fish, turkey, beef or pork, but also includes foods like tofu, beans, eggs, dairy, tempeh and the like. If we’re going back to that plate example, let’s next divide that same imaginary plate into half again, meaning half is now produce and the remaining half is split into quarters. The idea here is that the portion should be protein rich with any of the sources suggested earlier that in total offer about 20-30 grams of protein (that’s about a palmful of animal protein). But maybe you’re enjoying a smoothie. In this case a scoop of powder, cup of Greek yogurt or kefir, could be a perfect protein partner. Once again, there’s a range and spectrum of options and variety is key, so mix and match to meet your needs.
The last quarter of that plate? Quality grains.
Quality grains are foods like oats, rice, cereal, bread, pasta, farro, quinoa, and the like. While carbs get a bad wrap, they’re the easiest source of energy for your body, provide important B vitamins, fiber, plenty of other nutrients, and are a typical part of cultures and plates around the world.
But what about fat?
It’s oh so critical to health and usually not something that has to be added separately because without even considering it, it’s used to cook with, add to foods (olive oil, butter, etc) used in sauces, enjoyed in the snacks we eat (nuts, guacamole, etc). The list goes on. Yes, fat is critical to health and once again, variety and balance are key. It is in fact easy to eat and overeat, since it provides more than double the calories per gram as carbs or protein. In other words, a little bit goes a long way!
And finally, not quite “on the plate” per se is liquid.
Well, it actually is on the plate since many foods do contain water. But let’s consider what you’re drinking. Most of the time the aim should be to enjoy beverages without added calories, with the exception of dairy, if you do drink dairy. It’s also important to note that all liquid counts towards your daily total. Except alcohol. Tea and coffee or other caffeinated beverages are in that hydration mix, whereas alcohol does not. I say except alcohol as we’re looking at nutritional value here when talking about calories.
The more active you are, the more you need – even in the winter months. A very general guideline I often share is aim to drink half your bodyweight in ounces. So if you weigh 150 lbs, you’d shoot for about 75 oz daily, or a little over 9 cups (8 oz = 1 cup).
Putting it All Together.
So let me summarize nutrition and this entire piece in a single sentence.
We’re all on different spectrums of how we eat; my goal is for you to eat quality, nutrient dense foods, most of the time. Like 70-80% of the time. If you’re currently all in on fast food and thrice daily Big Macs are your jam, let’s try to cut that back to just twice daily, like in the story I shared earlier.
Progress > Perfection.
Doing all of this can help you reach your end goal of improving your health even slightly by tipping the ratio of better for you foods wherever you’re starting from. Because, let’s be honest, as food restriction, obsession and food shaming (even if internally) go up, anxiety, stress and disordered eating do too.
Eating should be fun. One of the beautiful things about eating is it’s often done with family and/or friends and that’s been a part of culture for as long as we know. As a dietitian for nearly 25 years, I can say with 100% certainty, I’d rather have you eat cake with a friend than a salad alone.