Why does an apple a day keep the doctor away?
Why did Popeye the Sailor Man eat cans of spinach and not SPAM to get strong?
Every time you eat, you make a choice: Eat foods that fuel your body and equip it to resist disease and be strong OR eat foods that do nothing for your health or worse yet, nudge you along a path to sickness.
Healthy made simple
The world of “Wellness” is a trillion dollar industry; consumers are bombarded with “super-food” claims and trendy prepackaged meals. Although there is nothing wrong with eating fruits high in antioxidants or paying for portioned-controlled meals, the world of balanced eating has become incredibly complicated and sometimes costly.
Recently, the USDA changed its look and offered a simpler way to remember how to maintain a balanced diet. Gone is the rainbow-colored food guide pyramid with hard-to-remember numbers of servings in each food group. The new logo is modeled after a dinner plate and is a lot more familiar than the previous one modeled after an Egyptian Wonder of the World.
In general, half of a meal or plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter ought to be lean (or low-fat) protein like fish, chicken or beef, and the remaining quarter should be carbohydrates, preferably whole grains.
ChooseMyPlate.gov highlights the plate model that has been used for years by registered dietitians and nutritionists to guide clients toward balanced eating and building a healthy meal. In general, half of a meal or plate should be fruits and vegetables, a quarter ought to be lean (or low-fat) protein like fish, chicken or beef, and the remaining quarter should be carbohydrates, preferably whole grains.
This configuration should remind you of the divided plates you used as a kid. In fact, a good way to follow this plan for healthy eating is to return to your childhood and buy a divided plate for use at home. Let’s face it! It would be hard to fit a slab of pork ribs or a 22-ounce rib eye in that little purple quarter of the plate labeled protein!
In addition, www.ChooseMyPlate.gov has a variety of easy-to-understand tips and tools to help you personalize an eating plan that is right for you.
Why the focus on fruits and vegetables
Beside the fact that your mother told me to write this, fruits and vegetables have been proven to provide great health benefits when generously consumed. Although a variety of popular diets promote eating produce (Mediterranean Diet, Ornish Diet, etc), our parents’ claims were supported by a large study called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). The DASH study assessed the benefits of eating a non-vegetarian diet heavy in fruits and vegetables.
In addition to lowering blood pressure, individuals who followed the diet over the long term had lower rates of stroke, congestive heart failure and some cancers. Also, the focus on higher proportions of fruits and vegetables, which are naturally lower in fats and calories, resulted in many participants losing weight. Consider this: If you’re eating a banana, the odds are in your favor that you’re not woofing down a large side of French fries.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with a variety of health-promoting fiber, vitamins and other nutrients that help maintain your body’s good health. Those are a few perks of eating fruits and vegetables. A more complete list can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Nutrient Benefit Foods
Certain foods have nutrients that scientific studies have proven lead to a healthier life. Here are some suggestions:
Fiber: Decreases risk of coronary artery disease
Eat: Black beans, navy beans, lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, artichokes
Folate: Decreases risk of women having children with spinal cord defects
Eat: Cooked spinach, great northern beans, black eyed peas, asparagus
Potassium: Maintains healthy blood pressure
Eat: Sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots
Vitamin A: Maintains healthy eyes and skin and protects against infections
Eat: Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, mustard greens, kale, cantaloupe, red peppers
Vitamin C: Helps to heal cuts and wounds and maintains healthy teeth and gums
Eat: Kiwi, strawberries, pineapple, broccoli, oranges, mangoes, cauliflower
Buy produce that is in season and locally grown to support farmers in your area and to ensure the best flavor (and cost). Strawberries shouldn’t look and taste like red mush! The meal planning and shopping section of the Fruits and Veggies Matter website has a link to a list of fresh produce by season and month of the year. Check it out before you shop or eat out.
Watch the liquid calories
Did you notice that the myplate.gov logo does not have a space for soda or juice? Sugar sweetened beverages — yes, even some bottles of fruit juice have added sugar —account for almost 180 extra calories a day and can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar!
Although having your favorite carbonated beverage every once in awhile will not derail efforts to eat healthily, excessive and mindless drinking of sugar-laden beverages can add on weight and can counter the benefits you gain with other healthy food choices. Stick with water or low-fat dairy drinks to quench your thirst and chose to eat your fruit rather than drink it — you get more fiber when you chew and less sugar, which is better for your body.
Maintaining a healthy diet doesn’t have to be confusing. Using the plate model and tools on ChooseMyPlate.gov makes it easy for all of us to find our health at home plate.
Here’s to YOUR good health!
Dr. Ann Smith Barnes is medical director, Weight Management Services & Disease Prevention, Harris County Hospital District, and assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.