If you feel lost when it comes to making healthy eating decisions, you are not alone. We may know which foods are healthier, but many of us still struggle to put it all together into a lifestyle that we can maintain.
The food pyramid published by the government in the early 1990s was criticized for being impractical and inaccurate, and fad diets often focus on one food group or another at the expense of nutritional balance. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scrapped the food pyramid in favor of a simpler tool called MyPlate. It’s not a magic bullet, but it can teach you general habits that make a big difference in your weight, risk for disease, and well-being. If you don’t know where to start, MyPlate is for you.
The First Pyramid
The food pyramid was created to help us understand which food groups were most important and to make it easier for people to create their own healthy diets. UAB Medicine Diabetes and Nutrition Education Clinic Supervisor Barbara Roberts, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, says the food pyramid had two major problems. First, it was based on outdated, inaccurate information. It recommended up to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta daily, and it suggested 2-3 servings each of meat and dairy without specifying lean or low-fat sources. Fats were generally to be avoided.
“Because of the bread and grain focus, even if you ate within calorie limits, you still missed out on the vitamins, minerals, and fiber you needed to stay healthy,” Roberts says. “The pyramid didn’t recommend whole grains, specifically, which help combat type 2 diabetes.”
The second problem was that the pyramid was complicated. “Many of us overestimate what a half-cup serving of rice looks like,” Roberts says.
Fixing a New Plate
Still, the idea of a simple chart to represent healthy eating is a good idea. To fix the pyramid, the USDA flattened it into a plate concept that reflects an accurate nutritional balance of a healthy diet and gives people flexibility in their available options. “Now we have a visual tool that makes sense to use,” Roberts says. “After all, most of the time we are eating on a plate and can easily judge relative portions.”
You can memorize the plate easily: Half of it is vegetables and fruits, and the other half is split evenly between meat (or other non-meat protein sources) and grains. You also may have a dairy serving on the side. Just add these simple rules below, and you are well-equipped to make healthier decisions:
- Focus on whole fruits.
- Vary your veggies.
- Make half of your grains whole grains.
- Vary your (mostly lean) protein sources.
- Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt (or lactose-free dairy or fortified soy versions).
About 75% of Americans are overweight, so MyPlate’s vegetable and fruit recommendations could make a huge difference in avoiding diabetes and heart disease. “No matter the nutrition question, ‘Eat more vegetables’ is part of the answer,” Roberts says.
Tips for Success
Here are some tips from a registered dietitian that can help you keep your healthy diet on track:
Healthy can be within your means: Get your vegetables and lean meats by any means available, including canned or frozen. You don’t have to spend your paycheck on exotic foods or chase the concept of “clean eating”. Over time, you’ll realize that some items don’t fit neatly on the plate (is your green bean casserole more green or more casserole?), and you can make adjustments in recipes.
Make vegetables exciting: Take the time to experiment with different vegetables and cooking methods until you find options that you look forward to. Roberts also stresses variety as recommended by MyPlate: Different colors and types of vegetables have different benefits.
Use teamwork to make healthy eating convenient: Your coworkers, friends, and family members can encourage each other by planning balanced potlucks, sharing snack ideas (Did you know that popcorn is a whole grain?), and recommending restaurants that allow for MyPlate proportions. If you attend a tailgate, be the hero who brings a leafy green.
Be flexible: Diets are exhausting because they are inflexible, so it may feel like failure when you give up on them. Roberts discourages clients from red-flagging any specific food group. “Enjoy the foods you love in moderation when they matter to you most,” she says.
MyPlate and the tips above are a great start for establishing better eating habits. However, if you are at risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, a registered dietitian can offer a more personalized diet plan, with progress that is both manageable and measurable.
The UAB Medicine Diabetes and Nutrition Education Clinic offers non-judgmental guidance from dietitians to help you to improve your numbers and make you feel better. Click here to learn more.