By Kathryn Matthews
The holiday eating season officially starts this Thursday, November 24th. When confronted by an onslaught of tempting foods, what will you put on your plate?
Forget strict dietary “rules”. Instead, visualize the Healthy Eating Plate created by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPS) nutrition experts. It’s an easy way of remembering how to enjoy food without sinking into a quagmire of caloric overindulgence.
HSPS’s Healthy Eating Plate, which launched in September, is the first credible nutrition “model” that I can get behind.
It’s a refreshing upgrade from previous USDA prototypes, which all too often fell prey to the influence of various food industry groups, from the National Dairy Council and the Wheat Foods Council, to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Soft Drink Association.
A quick walk down memory lane:
Remember the USDA’s “Food Pyramid” introduced in 1992? Please. Who wouldn’t gain weight following it? Consider the base of the Pyramid—or the foundation of this model—which encouraged 6-11 servings daily of starch carbohydrates: bread, rice, pasta, potatoes. For many people, that translated into a whole lot of white food—pizza, bagels, spaghetti, French fries. Any mention of whole grains? Nope.
This was the “low-fat” era. The Pyramid’s vague directive to use fats and oils sparingly made no mention of the importance of consuming healthy fats, like walnuts, olive oil or avocado. One overarching “protein” category lumped meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts and eggs together. There was no distinction between good proteins (fish, poultry, beans, nuts) and those that should be minimally consumed (red meats) or avoided (processed meats) . If you were literally following the Pyramid model, eating a burger, steak or a hot dog every night could ostensibly qualify as your choice of “protein”. And the Food Pyramid was a one-size-fits all model with no regard for an individual’s size, height or level of activity.
In 2005, the USDA debuted the supposedly new and improved “My Pyramid”…to heaps of criticism. Rightfully so. The new model looked like a missing part of a Lego set. OK….so it had a figure walking up the side of the pyramid, which introduced the concept of exercise as part of the healthy eating equation. But there was no text. No food images. Just a triangle divided into blocks of color. You had to be motivated enough to go to the website to find out what you should eat. IMO, that’s one too many clicks to see information that should be conveyed at a glance.
This June, the USDA tried again with its revised “My Plate” icon. Fruits and vegetables take up half the plate; grains and protein, the other half. There’s a small round circle outside the plate—for dairy. Yes….it’s visually concise and a generic improvement from previous models, but it still lacks specific directive. What kind of grains? What kind of protein? Is it OK to eat a pastrami sandwich every day if you fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables? (Correct answer: No).
If you’ve had enough smoke and mirrors, the Healthy Eating Plate comes as welcome relief. It offers intelligent guidance to healthy eating, and spells out specifics clearly.
• Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. One-quarter of that half plate, should consist of fruit; other three-quarters should consist of vegetables.
• Fill one-quarter of your plate with whole grains, but as the Healthy Eating Plate points out, this is OPTIONAL. Despite what commercials ma y lead you to believe, grains are not essential to your health.
• Choose a healthy source of protein, such as fish, chicken, beans or nuts, to fill one-quarter of your plate.
• Go for healthy fats, like olive oil and canola oil
• Drink water, coffee or tea and limit any dairy and sugary drinks
• Exercise!! This is a constant. Don’t expect to lose weight through diet alone.
For a plate-to-plate—USDA My Plate vs. HSPH Healthy Eating Plate—comparison, click here.
You decide: which tells you what you need to know?