To help give Americans a visual guide to eating healthier, one meal at a time, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled MyPlate in 2011. MyPlate divides your plate into sections so that you get the right amount of nutrients from different food groups.
Michelle Boose, MD, a family medicine doctor with ProMedica Physicians, explains the idea behind MyPlate: “At each meal, let fruits and vegetables account for half of your plate. Then, divide the other half of your plate equally with lean protein and whole grains. Finally, enjoy low- or no-fat dairy as part of your daily diet.”
Why does the USDA recommend dividing your plate this way? Let’s break down the benefits of each food group and how to best fuel your body at every meal.
Fruits and Vegetables
In the MyPlate food guide, fruits and vegetables account for half of a healthy plate. And there’s a good reason for it. Fruits and vegetables are low-calorie foods with tremendous health benefits. They are packed with important nutrients, including potassium, fiber, folic acid, and vitamins. These nutrients help your body perform its best and reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“In addition to eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, make sure that you are eating a variety, since different foods offer different nutrients,” explains Dr. Boose. “By eating fruits and vegetables of different colors – (orange) carrots, (green) peas, (purple) plums – you’ll be sure to get a wider variety of nutrients and health benefits.”
“Over the years, we have started seeing the benefits of whole grains over refined grains,” says Dr. Boose. “Refined grains – such as white flour, white bread and flour tortillas – are milled to create a finer texture. As they are milled, they are stripped of important nutrients, including fiber, iron and vitamins. Whole grains, however, contain the entire grain kernel and offer more nutrients and health benefits.”
The USDA recommends at least half of your grain intake be whole grains. You can do this by substituting some of your refined grains for whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice and oats.
Dr. Boose says proteins help make up the bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood in your body. As you eat foods with protein, your digestive system replaces your body’s broken down protein.
A wide variety of foods contain protein, including meat, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and seafood. These foods also contain iron, magnesium, zinc, and healthy fats. The USDA recommends eating lean or low-fat meat and poultry and at least 8 ounces of cooked seafood per week.
Dairy offers nutrients such as calcium, potassium and vitamin D. The USDA recommends fat-free or low-fat fluid milk, cheese and yogurt. Foods such as cream cheese and butter are made from milk but do not offer the same nutritional benefits. These should be used sparingly. If you’re lactose intolerant, talk with your doctor about healthy dairy choices.
It may be difficult to make every meal look exactly like MyPlate, with perfectly divided food group portions. Dr. Boose suggests using the image as a guide for choosing a variety of nutritious foods that make up a healthy diet.
“Taking small steps can make a difference and lead to healthy lifestyle choices,” says Dr. Boose. “If you don’t have enough fruits and vegetables at lunch, remember to snack on a piece of fruit when you’re hungry again. If you aren’t familiar with whole grains, make your first step incorporating them into your meal plans.”
Healthy food choices vary from person to person, depending on age, gender, overall health, and physical activity. You may need more or less of certain foods shown in MyPlate. Talk with your doctor to learn more about healthy food choices for you and your family.