By Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD
March is National Nutrition Month (NNM), a celebration of good nutrition sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). This year’s theme is Get Your Plate in Shape! and it refers to MyPlate, the symbol of how to eat that recently replaced the food pyramid.
As the author of a book about MyPlate, I have a lot of faith in this icon for healthy eating. MyPlate is a visual reminder of what to put on your plate and in your glass at every meal.
I can also say with confidence that MyPlate isn’t perfect. No simple symbol ever is.
In honor of NNM, I thought I’d clear up some confusion about how certain foods fit into the MyPlate plan. That way, you really can do as NNM suggests, and get your plate in shape!
The Protein Puzzle
MyPlate is divided into sections. The idea is to fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables, about one-quarter of it with grains, and the remainder with protein.
Protein is the only nutrient called out on MyPlate. The remaining parts of the plate are designated by food groups. This makes sense to me, but may not be clear to consumers.
Protein is found in a diverse group of foods including meat, seafood, poultry, beans, peas, eggs, soy products, nuts, and seeds. While dairy foods are not including under MyPlate’s protein umbrella, yogurt, milk, and cheese are also significant protein sources.
No matter what your eating style, MyPlate promotes eating a variety of protein-packed foods for the array of nutrients they provide, including iron, zinc, fiber, and heart-healthy omega-3 fats. In addition, plant foods with protein are cholesterol free and relatively low in fat.
People on a 2,000-calorie eating plan need about 5 ½ ounces of cooked meat, poultry, or seafood or the equivalent every day. Meat (including poultry) and seafood are among the most recognizable protein foods. But there are plenty of high-protein substitutions for meat and seafood that aren’t so obvious from the MyPlate icon. Here’s how to work more variety onto MyPlate.
Swap the following for two ounces of meat, poultry, or fish:
• One ounce nuts (49 pistachio kernels, 25 almonds, or 14 walnut halves, for example).
• ½ cup cooked beans for two ounces meat of seafood (Beans also count as a vegetable, so they do double duty.)
• 2 eggs
• 4 tablespoons peanut butter or nut butter
• 1 ounce seeds
• ¼ cup hummus
• 1/2 cup tofu OR shelled edamame (soybeans)
Dried Fruit and Fruit Juice
People on a 2,000-calorie eating plan need 2 servings of fruit daily. A serving of fruit is 1 cup of sliced or cubed fresh fruit, 1 piece of medium fruit, such as a banana or an apple, or 1 cup 100% fruit juice.
It’s easy to see how a sliced apple or a cup of cubed cantaloupe fits on a balanced plate, but harder to imagine the role of dried fruit or fruit juice.
Dried fruit is more concentrated in nutrients, so the serving size is smaller. One-quarter cup of dried fruit with no added sweeteners, such as raisins, is equal to a half-serving of fruit.
Eight ounces of 100% fruit juice counts as one fruit serving. Limit juice to eight ounces daily. Whole and dried fruit is more filling because it’s higher in fiber.
As a dietitian and a mom, I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like. That goes double for the ones my kids will eat without a fuss.
But critics of MyPlate often fault the symbol’s lack of distinction between starchy vegetables – potatoes, peas, and corn, to name a few – and non-starchy vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, and green beans.
Starchy vegetables supply more calories and carbohydrate and must be limited by certain people, including those with diabetes. But for the rest of us whose vegetable intake is woefully low, eating two to three servings of any vegetable every day is a big improvement.
Some vegetables are better than others. Darker greens, such as Romaine lettuce and spinach, serve up far more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, and the same goes for asparagus, broccoli, and kale as compared to cucumbers.
Yet, the message to always choose brightly colored produce irks me.
Bananas, cauliflower, and mushrooms, which are considered white or tan, are loaded with nutrients too. Compounds in cauliflower and mushrooms protect cells and help to ward off cancer. Both types of vegetables supply potassium, fiber, and antioxidants, and they’re relatively low-calorie, too.
Bottom line: Eat a variety of vegetables, and don’t smother them in added fat and cheese.
“Where’s the fat?” is a refrain I often hear when it comes to MyPlate. And why not: Its absence is remarkable. MyPlate’s lack of a symbol for added fat is a pet peeve. After all, we cook with fat, and we add it to food, so we should know how it fits into healthy eating.
Women aged 19 and older can have five to six teaspoons of added fat daily as part of a balanced diet, while men of the same age are allowed six to seven teaspoons a day. That’s according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which is the basis for MyPlate recommendations.
Focus on oils, such as canola and olive oils, instead of more solid fats, such as stick margarine and butter. Oils supply more heart-healthy unsaturated fatty acids. Solid fats, like those found in animal foods, have higher levels of saturated fatty acids, which may lead to heart disease by clogging arteries.
Don’t feel compelled to add fat to your food, however. You may get plenty of healthy fat from the foods you eat on a regular basis, such as salmon, nuts, olives, and avocados.
Alcohol and Dessert
Even with the emphasis on healthy foods, MyPlate leaves room for less nutritious fare, even though cookies, cake, and wine aren’t included in the symbol.
No matter what your “Calorie Salary” – the number of calories you need to maintain or lose weight every day – you always have some calories to spend however you want, no questions asked.
These so-called discretionary calories vary. On a 1,800-calorie eating plan, you have 161 calories to play with; on a 2,000-calorie plan, 258; and if you need 2,200 calories for a healthy weight, you get 266 “extra” calories every day.
There’s some room for low-nutrient foods as part of a balanced diet, but not much. Don’t go overboard. Know your calorie budget, read food labels, and pay attention to portion sizes. Here are some examples of the foods you may choose to include:
• 3 crème-filled sandwich cookies: 143 calories
• 1.6-ounce plain chocolate bar: 235 calories
• 5 ounces white wine: 121 calories
• 12 ounces regular beer: 150 calories
• Small order fast food French fries: 271 calories
• 1 ounce potato chips: 160 calories