To help people make smart food choices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has designed an easy-to-follow symbol: MyPlate. The plate graphic, with its different food groups, is a reminder of what — and how much — we should be putting on our plates to stay healthy.
The MyPlate graphic has sections for vegetables, fruits, grains, and foods that are high in protein, as well as a "cup" on the side for dairy. Each section is a different size and color coded (green for veggies, red for fruits, orange for grains, purple for protein, and blue for dairy) so you can see at a glance how much of these foods to eat.
The plate graphic reminds us of the following nutrition needs:
Different food groups meet different nutrition needs. If you regularly skimp on one group, over time you won't get the best nutrition.
The vegetable portion of MyPlate is shown in green. It's one of the largest sections on the plate. That's because vegetables provide many of the vitamins and minerals we need for good health. Veggies are naturally low in calories, and the fiber in them helps us feel full.
Choosing variety is important when it comes to vegetables: Dark green vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, and kale) provide different nutrients from orange and red vegetables (like squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes). The "eat your colors" message that you might have learned in grade school is a good one to follow throughout your life.
Like veggies, fruits contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The red section of MyPlate is slightly smaller than the green, but together fruits and veggies should fill half your plate. Whole fruit is the best choice: Fruit juices have more calories per serving than whole fruit, and you're not getting the fiber.
As with veggies, it's good to mix up your fruit choices: a colorful fruit cup is more than just pretty — it's a nutrition powerhouse.
The orange section on the MyPlate graphic shows the proportion of grains you should eat. Whole grains (like whole-wheat flour) are more nutritious and have lots of dietary fiber that can help you feel fuller longer. Refined grains (white flour) have been processed, removing vitamins, mineral, and fiber. Most refined grains are enriched, which means that some of the nutrients, but not fiber, are added back after processing.
So try to choose at least half of your day's grains from whole-grain sources like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, or oatmeal.
Foods that are high in protein help the body build, maintain, and repair tissue. They also have nutrients like B vitamins and iron.
The purple section on the MyPlate graphic shows the proportion of protein you need. Foods high in protein include beef, poultry, seafood, dry beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds. Tofu and veggie burgers or vegetarian meat substitutes are also good sources of protein. When eating meats, choose lean or low-fat options and try to minimize deli meats and other processed meats that are high in sodium.
The blue circle on the MyPlate graphic represents dairy products that are rich in calcium, like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Calcium-fortified soy milk is also included in the dairy group. Calcium is essential for growth and building strong bones and teeth. Choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products most of the time.
The blue circle shows dairy as a "side" to your meal, like a glass of milk. But dairy can be incorporated in your meal, like a cheese quesadilla, or served as a snack or dessert. Yogurt with fresh fruit or a fruit smoothie made with low-fat milk make great desserts.
It's easy to follow the MyPlate graphic if you're eating a "meat, starch, and veg" type meal where everything is prepared separately.
But what if you're having a sandwich or a meal that mixes different foods together, like a salad, pasta dish, stew, or stir fry? That's when you need to use the principles behind the plate as a guide instead of copying it exactly.
For a sandwich, let the MyPlate graphic guide you on what to choose. A healthy sandwich might start with two slices of whole-wheat bread — your grains. Add a slice of meat, cheese, or other protein. Then fill the sandwich with vegetables like lettuce, tomato, or grated carrots. Add a side of fruit and a cup of low-fat white milk and you've got your balanced meal.
For one-dish meals (or salads), make sure that half of what you're eating are vegetables and fruits, about a quarter is lean protein, and a quarter is grain, preferably whole grain. So, for example, a spaghetti dish could be whole-wheat pasta with a meatball, tossed with chopped tomato along with other veggies, like spinach or carrots. A stir-fry might be mixed veggies with a few pieces of tofu or chicken and brown rice. Avoid or limit high-fat sauces (like cream sauces) in one-dish meals and don't add too much dressing to salads.
The MyPlate graphic is only a guide. Not every meal you eat will have every food group, but try to include three or more. Take breakfast, for example: If you have a whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, add some fruit and maybe a glass of milk. You can make up any missing food groups, like veggies, later in the day.
How much we eat is tied to how much we exercise. Food and drinks (except water and diet versions) contain calories. Exercise and daily activities burn calories. When we take in more calories than we burn, our bodies store those extra calories as fat.
During our teens, we all need to eat a variety of foods to get the nutrients that help our bodies grow. But athletes and other people who are very active need additional food so they can fuel their activity levels in addition to their growth. And people who are less active need to eat less food to avoid gaining weight.
It's not just about weight though: Regular physical activity benefits every part of our bodies, including the mind. Exercise can help fight off a range of potential health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and even depression. Aim to get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.
The USDA's MyPlate website offers lots of healthy living guidelines. You can get personalized recommendations about which foods to eat and how much — including estimates of the number of calories needed to stay at a healthy weight for your age, gender, and activity level.
To create your personal profile, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov. [Please note: By clicking on this link, you will be leaving our site.]
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014
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