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The Power of the Plate

I’m a nutrition professional, and I’m going to say it — the food pyramid was useless. Good riddance to unscientific recommendations based on feeding the masses the most calories for their dollar. Now we have MyPlate, improving congruence between the USDA’s recommendations and sound nutrition science. Any critical thinker would be a bit dubious. I will explain why you can feel good about the plate method and use it daily to support your health.

MyPlate is a vast improvement over the pyramid, but it could be even better, so I developed my own version of the plate method using current nutrition research. My plate method that I use in my practice below.  My clinical version does not include dairy as a separate food group, separates fruit from the main meal, and makes starch and fruit [optional] parts of a meal.

Plate Method

What makes the plate method so special?

Here are some of the many therapeutic uses of the plate method:

  • Reduced risk of weight gain and diabetes! The plate method reduces intake of carbohydrates that raise blood sugar and increases intake of non-starchy vegetables, whose fiber and micronutrient content help to improve blood sugar stability while stable protein intake helps smooth energy levels. With a balanced lifestyle, weight is lost.
  • Reduced and stable blood pressure! The plate method promotes 50-75% of the diet as produce and about 25% of the diet as protein, which helps fluid balance in the body. This balance of minerals and protein in the diet helps alkalinize the body and promote pH balance, which lowers blood pressure and reduces kidney stress.
  • Skin, Hair, Nails, Feelings, and Hormones. Balanced blood sugar, protein intake, and powerful vegetable intake helps build and maintain the body tissues, stabilizes mood, and helps to balance the hormone levels that affect energy and mood! Want to look and feel better? Start by eating your greens and proteins!
  • Pooping Perfection. The plate method allows and encourages sources of both types of fiber that your stool needs to leave you with grace. Do you achieve 1-3 well-formed, toothpaste-in-texture, medium-brown bowel movements daily? If not, drink more water and eat those veggies!

An example: here is a meal I had last week that I thought was very, very tasty. power of the plate

For the veggies, roasted cauliflower with curry seasoning (leftover from the day before), steamed whole radishes with mustard and sriracha, baba ghanouj (eggplant and sesame seed butter/tahini with spices); for the protein, ~3 oz of baked salmon rubbed with smoked paprika and allspice, and topped with pumpkin seeds for a protein and crunch boost.

Looks complicated? Not so much—salmon in the baking dish with a few spices, rinse a few radishes and steam in small saucepan, and warm up the roasted cauliflower in the oven a few minutes before the salmon is done. ~5 min of preparation, ~ 20 min of bake time, eating 30 min after arriving home from work.  Crunchy nuts, creamy baba ghanouj, snappy vegetables, savory salmon. Yes.

Ready to build the perfect plate? Using the plate or the bowl method is easy! Here’s how:

  • Fill 50% at minimum to 75% of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Consider starchy vegetables, like beets, potatoes, carrots, jicama, and corn to be starchy, like grains.
  • Fill 25% of your plate (or top your vegetables) with protein. Protein includes animal foods like meats, poultry and eggs, fish, and dairy and plant sources such as algae, seaweed, nuts, seeds, some seed-grains (like quinoa, millet, amarynth, teff), and beans (legumes).
  • Decide whether to include an additional source of starch at your meal, a fruit for dessert, or no additional carbohydrates at your meal.  Many working toward lower blood sugar goals to lose weight and reduce disease risk will opt for 75% of the plate as non-starchy vegetables and skip the starch altogether. I usually advise patients to cut carbohydrates from whole foods back earlier in the day before attempting reductions in the evening to reduce the risk of compromising quality sleep.
  • Don’t forget the flavor! Top or infuse your meals with spices, sauces, and salsas that you prepare at home or purchase from a trusted source — check labels for hidden sugar, sodium, artificial and natural flavors, coloring agents, and excessive preservatives. Different flavorizers can make new meals out of leftover ingredients instantly!
  • Keep fruits separate. Some people have strong digestion and can ignore this advice, but for most, fruit combines poorly with foods other than nuts, seeds, and yogurts.
  • Indulge in a separate salad, vegetable soup, or veggie side when eating out. It is difficult to make these ratios work at restaurants that stretch meal size with large servings of bread, grains, or starchy vegetables. Split a meal in half, add some soup or salad to boost your veggie intake, and take the rest home to add to some veggies the next day!

The plate method is great because it is one simple, easy to use pie chart that says so much with so little.  When you grocery shop, use the same ratios– 50-75% of your haul as veggies, 25% as protein– to set yourself up for a perfect plate with greater ease.

While a great starting point for meal management, the plate method has several limitations– for instance, it does not address dietary quality, fluid intake, healthy snacking, or individuality. Moreover, our farming and food subsidies at the USDA do not reflect the ratios of food groups we are being asked to consume. Not everyone can afford to eat this way in America because we have not yet put our money where our mouth is and continue to subsidize grains instead of vegetables. But that is a post for another day.   


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