March is National Nutrition Month. This year’s theme is “get your plate in shape.” The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ website offers nutrition information and fun educational tools, such as nutrition soduku and word searches for kids.
What better way to get your plate in shape then by watching those portion sizes? If you find yourself filling up every empty space on your dinner plate, you may want to simply try a smaller plate. A recent study published in Appetite shows that dish size plays a role in how much people eat. Study participants with large dishes put more food on their plate and ended up eating more than those with smaller plates. If your cupboards are stocked with over-sized dinner plates, just use your side salad plate or pick up a portion plate for you or your kids.
So what should you be putting on your plate?
Since there is much advice on this topic, I spent some time exploring the many government and non-profit data sets and web sites. My winner? The Harvard School of Public Health’s pyramid which follows a more Mediterranean-based eating plan. I also began to consider how the USDA has started to bring the famous (infamous?) food pyramid into the 21st century. The most recent updates on the USDA’s pyramid have been applauded by some as at least progress, although I still believe more work needs to be done. The guidelines are weak at providing relevant and understandable guidance. For example, why are grains the foundation of the pyramid with few fats on top?
We should have a Mediterranean pyramid with vegetables, fruits and healthy fats as the foundation (very colorful!)—take a look at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Food Pyramid and the explanation of the science behind it. Their five quick tips also go a long way toward a common sense, effective approach to reforming the American lifestyle and diet:
- Start with exercise.
- Focus on food, not grams.
- Go with plants.
- Cut back on American staples.
- Take a multivitamin, and maybe have a drink. (emphasis added)
The Weston A. Price Foundation also provides eating guidelines called Healthy 4 Life. “The Healthy 4 Life plan recommends nutrient-dense versions of animal and plant foods, with particular emphasis on healthy traditional fats like butter, lard, egg yolks from pastured animals and coconut oil, stating that today’s chronic diseases parallel the departure of these foods from the American diet and substitution with commercially adulterated vegetable oils and sugars. The plan does not specify specific amounts of fats or carbohydrates because the need for these macronutrients varies with the individual. “ While the WAP foundation lifestyle may not fit the bill for everyone, I find their summary on the foundation’s Web site thought-provoking. Although eating plans vary by organization, one thing everyone agrees on is that vegetables and fruits, lots of them, are a daily must have!! And, local is always best.
When filling your plate, aim for lots of color. Foods like veggies, fruits, avocados and olives are great colors that can go along with the shades of beige found in grains. Although the USDA’s most recent version of the pyramid leaves much to be desired, their Web site www.mypyramid.gov provides some good, foundational information to start building your own healthy Mediterranean-based pyramid.
For example, the Daily Food Plan calculator allows you to enter basic info (height, weight, age, sex, amount of physical activity) and returns a "customized" daily food plan. Of course, the results are general and cannot take into account your personal circumstances and should be reviewed with a Registered Dietitian or physician with experience in nutrition science. Understanding your health goals and creating a plan can only take you so far, however. Implementation and tracking your progress are most important.
There's a simple meal tracker worksheet that can be downloaded from the site, or you may sign up (free, quick) for more comprehensive and personalized features using Super Tracker. Super Tracker is a simple interface and shouldn't scare the less tech-savvy among us. It allows you to create and track a personalized food plan using the basic guidelines put forth in the USDA food pyramid. It also offers reports that show your food intake and activity level over a selected period of time. This allows you to identify and track personal trends in order to help you meet your goals. In addition it provides a very comprehensive nutrient list, useful for those seeking to avoid or increase particular nutrients.
The overload of information online about our health and diet has not only empowered patients to ask their doctors questions and get more involved, but it has started to shift momentum back toward sensible policy. The number of grassroots sustainable food and “green” organizations provide clear evidence that we are no longer willing to take the government’s recommendations at face value. At the same time, government has begun to step up, as shown by passage of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Program (FFVP), aimed at providing fresh fruits and vegetables to elementary school children, and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The government has come a long way although there is much progress to be made. With more data available and more ways to participate in policymaking, let’s keep pushing the age of information into the age of health...