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Fundamentals of Good Nutrition: USDA MyPlate

Healthy eating starts with consuming foods from each of these food groups:

Vegetables: include a variety of colors, legumes and starchy vegetables

  • Colors: dark green (spinach & kale), red (beets & tomatoes) and orange (sweet potatoes & carrots)

  • Legumes: beans & soy, lentils & chick peas

  • Starchy Vegetables: corn & potatoes

Fruits: whole fruits are preferred over fruit juice

Grains: at least half should be whole grains; including brown rice, whole wheat, oats, barley, and quinoa

Dairy: low-fat or fat-free: milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages

Protein: include different sources, such as seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (from the vegetable category, also rich in protein), nuts and seeds

Oils: from plants; including olive, canola, soybean and sunflower

Follow MyPlate

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed MyPlate to show us what healthy eating looks like. Half of our plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables, the other half divided between protein and grains. Of the grains we eat, at least 50% should be whole grains. Whole grains refer to grains with their outer bran layer intact. In contrast, refined grains have the bran layer removed, such as in white rice or white flour. The dairy section on the plate reminds us to consume 3 servings of calcium-rich dairy each day.

MyPlate eating focuses on consuming foods that are nutrient dense. These are foods that are close to their natural state. They have rich nutrient contents that have not been processed or prepared with extra solid fats, added sugars, refined grains and salt. These nutrient dense foods should make up at least 85% of the food we eat everyday.

Many foods we eat aren’t on MyPlate. Even though foods such as coffee, cookies, chips, sports drinks, ice cream, soda or wine don’t fit into any of the food groups on the plate, they are not “bad” foods. In fact, there are no “bad” foods in our diet. However, there are bad diets. A bad diet is when foods not included in MyPlate regularly replace foods that should be on the plate, for example, eating chips instead of an apple.

MyPlate illustrates the ideal quality of our eating. When determining how much food to eat per day, consider how many calories you should consume. Calories are a measure of the energy we get from the macronutrients in food. Fats provide 9 calories per gram, more than twice the amount provided by carbohydrates and protein (4 calories per gram). The daily number of calories you need is individualized and based on height, weight, age, gender and activity level. That amount accounts for the calories you expend during activity, in addition to your basal metabolic rate: the quantity of energy your body requires at rest.

I am not encouraging calorie counting. Instead, use the MyPlate food groups as your guide to food quantity. Below, I provide a summary for someone requiring 2,000 calories a day (the amount of calories needed for a moderately-active adult weighing about 130 pounds). This is also the number of calories used by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as their standard for the information seen on food labels.

Vegetables: 2 ½ cups (1 cup = 1 cup raw, cooked or canned vegetables OR 2 cups salad greens OR 1 cup 100% vegetable juice)

Fruit: 2 cups (1 cup = 1 cup raw, frozen, cooked or canned fruit OR ½ cup dried fruit OR 1 cup 100% fruit juice)

Grains: 6 ounces (1 ounce = 1 slice of bread OR 1 ounce ready-to-eat cereal OR ½ cup cooked rice, pasta or cereal)

Dairy: 3 cups (1 cup = 1 cup milk OR 1 cup yogurt OR 1 cup fortified soy beverage OR 1 ½ ounces natural cheese)

Protein: 5 ½ ounces (1 ounce = 1 ounce cooked or canned lean meat, poultry or seafood OR 1 egg OR 1 tablespoon nut butter OR ¼ cup cooked beans or peas OR ½ ounce nuts or seeds)

You can determine your food group calculations at Look for 'Tool' and calculate 'MyPlan'. A customized meal plan based on food groups will be generated, as done above with the 2,000-calorie example, according to your individual recommended daily calories.

This is a place to start. Please know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition and health. We are all unique with different bodies, goals, backgrounds and tastes! As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I am trained to tailor healthful eating plans for each person I help. Please contact me at Lynn@myplate2yours, if I can assist you!

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