For my fellow lit nerds out there, yes, that Raymond Carver reference was totally on purpose. I just can’t help myself sometimes.
I thought that today we’d talk about one of the most common questions I get asked from new clients.
“What should I eat?”
I feel like I sound super old school when I say this, but nine times out of ten, my answer is, “Let’s start by focusing on balanced meals.”
The MyPlate guide we have now is sort of an improvement on the bizarre-o Food Pyramid of yore*, but a lot of dietitians, myself included, think it falls short when it comes to communicating what a healthy diet looks like. For example, it doesn’t even address dietary fat in the main visual, and the amounts of grains and dairy may not suit everyone’s needs, depending on medical conditions and considerations for allergies/intolerances. Grains are not the only source of carbohydrates and fiber, just as dairy is not the only way to get your calcium, vitamin D, and the like.
One thing I think it does well, though, is highlight the importance of vegetables in the diet by showing that half your plate should come from fruits and veggies.
As someone who spent four years in grad school, essentially, learning how to eat, I can tell you that it’s not just you—our God-Bless-America food culture makes healthy eating seem like a really nebulous concept that leaves a lot of folks scratching their heads and feeling bad about themselves for not being able to just eat “right.”
I may not believe in one objective, “right” way of eating (different individual bodies=different individual needs), but I do think there a few basics ways to help you feel nourished and energized as you work toward you personal health goals. I am all about balanced meals. By that, I mean a combination of protein, fat, and carbs to give you that slow-burning energy you need to get through your day. There may be some variation in the fine print depending on who you ask, but to me, the big picture looks like this when talking about a balanced meal:
Veggies: Go for the non-starchy stuff like leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and seasonal superstars like asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, radishes, and the like.
Protein: Lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, full-fat dairy, tofu, tempeh, seitan…whatever works for you! Yes, there is some overlap (for example, beans are a great source of complex carbs, nuts are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats), but choose what’s going to work best for you, depending what else is on your plate. Maybe try an egg instead of beans with your brown rice and veggies if you’re eating a lower-carb diet, or choose between (healthy but caloric) nuts and avocado on a salad if you’re trying to keep calories in check. It’s all about customizing your meals based on your needs.
Complex Carbohydrate: A small serving of a complex carb such as quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread or pasta, beans, peas, lentils, or starchy veggies like sweet potato, corn, or winter squash. A small serving of carbohydrate in the context of a meal will help promote stable blood sugar levels to keep you upbeat and alert until your next meal or snack.
Healthy Fat: Important for neurological function, hormone production, and satiety, a small serving of a healthy fat at meals also helps us stay full for longer, as fat digests slowly. For years, the recommendation was to restrict saturated fat (think: animal-based, solid-at-room-temp sources), and even though current research is showing we may not need to limit quite so much, it’s still generally recommended to get most of your fat from unsaturated plant-based sources such as oils, nuts, seeds, and avocado.
*One thing I did like about the food pyramid was the use of ranges for number of servings per day, and that the language of the related materials was more straightforward as opposed to sounding like polite suggestions. You can’t please everyone, so why try?
Do you have preference between the pyramid and the plate? What’s one of your favorite meals?