I took a poll of my readers recently, and quite a few people wanted to know how to build healthy meals. So, here you go! I’ve put together a basic primer on how to build a healthy plate, since it’s an easy concept to understand and visualize. Much of this information is based on a current course I took from real food experts Diane Sanfilippo and Liz Wolfe (which, if you don’t listen to their Balanced Bites podcast, you are missing out!).
Why is knowing how to build a healthy meal important? Why can’t I just eat what I have or what I’m craving?
Learning how to build a healthy meal is essential to:
– losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight
– keeping blood sugar and hormones working well
– supporting healthy digestion (which also affects your hormones)
– being a consistent healthy eater, which will help you be healthier as you age
The first step is to put a meal together that meets YOUR activity level.
Everybody should understand the basic principles of how to fuel your body for your level of activity. Generally, the more active you are, the more starchy carbs you will need. There are exceptions to this, but for most people looking to lose weight and stay healthy, this works well. Now, don’t mistake this for me saying that people should be “low carb” if you aren’t an Olympic athlete. That’s NOT what I’m saying. What I am saying is that most people are fueling their body for a carbohydrate level that they don’t really need. It’s easy to do in our world of hyper-palatable scientifically constructed food.
Let’s talk about what you should have on your plate for the majority of your meals. You’re going to focus on 3 components:
– Protein (think meats, eggs, and seafoods)
– Non Starchy Veggies (think leafy greens and other veggies like, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, etc.)
– Starchy Vegetables and Fruit (this includes all variety of potatoes, dense veggies like squash, yams, beets, and of course, all types of fruit)
Note: These graphs are a % of your food, not as a % of your plate.
If you are moderately active (or unsure of how to rate yourself), you’ll divide your % of food like this:
If you are very active, athletic and/or pregnant or nursing, this is a great way to break down your plate.
If you are not very active, or do things that don’t take as many carbs (yoga, walking, etc.), this is a great way for you to eat.
Don’t get bent out of shape about the titles. Pick one that you think you fall in (or just pick the middle one if you don’t know), and try building your plate like this for a month. You should see some positive health changes, if not simply just better energy.
If you aren’t seeing positive health changes, there are a couple things that could be happening. You could be eating low quality foods. You could be eating portions that are too big for your body mass. Or, you might need to decrease starchy veggies if you’ve overestimated your activity level. If that doesn’t work, I would consult an expert or reach out to me here for what may not be working well.
The second step is to choose portion sizes that are appropriate.
My general advice is to focus on the highest quality foods that you can afford, but you also need to be on the lookout for appropriate portion sizes. Even if you’re eating organic chicken and farm raised veggies, there is certainly a thing as too much. (To learn my recommendations about food quality, read this post.)
Here are my recommendations for portion sizes (and this depends on your body mass, of course):
Protein: Women need 3-8 oz for meals, and Men need 8-12 oz for meals (I’m assuming a factor of 3 meals per day).
Non-Starchy Vegetables: I recommend as much as you would like, as long as they aren’t drowning in oils or fats, even if the fats are healthy.
Starchy Vegetables: Women should eat about 1/2 cup to 1 cup, and Men should eat 1 cup to 1 1/2 cups. Increase or decrease based on your size and activity level.
Fruits: Generally, stick to 1 piece as 1 serving, unless it’s a large piece of fruit, and then count it as 2. For berries, 1/2 cup to 1 cup is a fine portion.
Fats and Oils: These aren’t accounted for on your plate, because they should be the garnish or base by which you cook your food, not a central plate ingredient. For Women, stick to 1 tablespoon or less, and Men should stick to around 2 tablespoons.
Questions I know you’re asking:
– What happens when I go to a restaurant? Try to think of the foods you order in this manner. Make sure you order a good quality protein, then pack your plate with veggies. Remember restaurants use fats liberally, so you might even cut down on portion size to compensate for that. You can eat this way at virtually any restaurant, anywhere. Sometimes you might have to order side dishes to add in extra veggies or meats, but it’s very easy to do.
– Why aren’t there grains or beans on your list? For most people (even the ones who think they are fine), grains and beans cause digestive issues, and they are NOT at all nutrient dense choices. A sweet potato blows quinoa out of the water nutritionally, and doesn’t come with the digestive damage. Similarly, a piece of chicken is going to bring you a nutritionally complete form of protein, as where something like tofu will not. So, I make these recommendations based on the fact that these foods are simply better for you in every way. If you’ve done an elimination diet and know that a certain grain doesn’t bother you, or you just LOVE beans, then go for it. Just know that if your aim is to feel / look / perform better, and you aren’t getting your desired results, I’d avoid them.
That’s it! To recap, you’ll think of building your plate like this:
Protein + Non-Starchy Veggies + Starchy Veggies or Fruit = plate! Cook your food with a high quality oil, add spices, and you have a good meal. Do this consistently and you’ll build health every single day. Do this for YEARS and you’ll see the results in terms of longevity and quality of life.
Happy / healthy eating!
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