Design a Healthy Plate

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Healthy Eating Plate showing all food groups.As we plan a new year and navigate the twists and turns of a continuing “new normal”, this is a good time to think about personal habits that have emerged over the last two years. Changes in eating and physical activity have certainly been affected, either positively or negatively, by the pandemic. Some people are actually moving more and eating smarter – choosing to walk, bike, or participate in other outdoor recreation instead of indoor activities and cooking more meals at home rather than gathering at restaurants. However, not everyone has adopted healthier habits. In fact, the pandemic has generated a wide range of negative impacts on eating and fitness behaviors such as more snacking, more take-out meals, and less activity in general.

Getting back on track with healthy eating and physical activity can seem overwhelming, especially when unhealthy choices have become a daily habit. The best way to tackle any challenge is one step at a time. During the first half of this new year, I am writing a series of articles on the Eat Smart Move More Core Behaviors. These are evidence-based lifestyle behaviors that can improve overall health. Article topics will include choosing healthier foods, enjoying more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, sitting less, moving more, and managing stress and sleep.

This month’s topic on choosing healthier foods begins with designing a healthy plate. Imagine your plate divided in half and then imagine half of your plate filled with vegetables and fruits. Remember that potatoes and corn are extremely starchy vegetables and should be limited. Aim for color and variety by choosing fruits and vegetables in the deepest, richest colors available – dark greens, bright reds, vibrant yellows and oranges, and deep purples and blues.

Now let’s concentrate on the other half of your plate. This half should contain whole grain and protein. Whole and intact grains such as whole wheat, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, oats, barley and other ancient grains have a milder effect on blood sugar than white breads, white rice, and other refined grains. When choosing protein, limit red meat and avoid processed meats. Choose fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and eggs instead.

While a healthy plate is made up of vegetables, fruits, protein, and whole grains, there are other foods that can be added to a healthy diet. Choose healthy plant oils such as olive and canola oil. Avocado, nuts, salmon, and tuna are also examples of healthy monounsaturated fats. All of these, however, should be eaten in moderation as all fats are high in calories. The fats to avoid are those that are saturated or partially hydrogenated. A quick look at the nutrition facts label will tell you the type and amount of fat in a food.

For beverages, enjoy unsweetened versions of your favorite coffee or tea. Avoid sugary drinks, which are a major source of calories with little nutritional value. If you drink juice, choose only 100 percent juice and limit to a four-ounce serving. Consume one to two servings of dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese) and, most importantly, boost your water intake.

Whether you are planning your dinner plate, lunch box, snack, or breakfast meal, using the mental picture of your divided plate can help you choose healthier options. Applying the healthy plate concept to your dinner menu seems pretty straightforward. However, applying it to your take-to-work lunch or your on-the-go breakfast can be a bit more challenging. For breakfast, strive to include two to three food groups such as a whole grain and a healthy protein with a piece of fruit – whole wheat toast, egg, and peaches, for example. If you have to eat breakfast on the run, roll up a whole wheat tortilla filled with nut butter and sliced apples or top plain yogurt with granola and berries.

Use the same technique for snacks, but change up the food groups. Need more vegetables in your diet? Not getting enough protein or dairy? Use snack time to incorporate these foods. Fruit, cheese, yogurt, nuts, raw veggies, and whole grains are great healthy snacks. Think of snacks as “mini-meals” that give you a nutritional boost.

Next month’s article will delve deeper into healthier eating behaviors and offer practical strategies for eating less junk food and more fruits and vegetables. In the meantime, enjoy designing and creating your own healthy plate with a variety of foods from all the food groups. This first step will put you on the path toward a healthier diet and lay the groundwork for building lifelong healthy habits.