What Does a Perfect Plate Look Like?

Go here to grab your own Healthy Eating Placemat now!  

In honor of our Food Day Challenge, we have created a very special tool for you called the Healthy Eating Placemat, which is the brainchild of Registered Dietitian Jeff Novick.

The Placemat gives you simple and straightforward guidelines about how you can create the healthiest meals possible—the ‘perfect plate,’ both during the Challenge and for years to come.

And it does so visually.

Simply because when you ‘see’ things, it makes everything easier.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the principles behind the Healthy Eating Placemat as well as how to best use it so you can create the ‘perfect plate.’

The Perfect Plate

Healthy Eating Placemat SymbolThe perfect plate is made by doing the following:

  • Drink water (versus sugary drinks).
  • Start each meal with soup, salad and/or fruit.
  • Eat a ‘perfect plate’ that is visually split 50/50. One-half is ‘green’ foods (fruits and non-starchy vegetables) while the second half is ‘yellow’ foods (starchy vegetables, legumes, and/or intact whole grains).
  • Finish the meal with fruit.

Let’s now explore the Placemat and its principles in depth.

The 5 Pillars of Healthful Eating

The Placemat has been built using the 5 Pillars of Healthful Eating.

Let’s go through each pillar together.

Pillar 1: Be Plant-Centered

apple icon from the Healthy Eating PlacematThe fundamental pillar for healthful eating is that your food should be plant-based. This means that each meal should be filled predominately with unprocessed and/or minimally processed plant foods:

  • Fruits
  • Starchy and non-starchy vegetables
  • Roots and tubers
  • Intact whole grains
  • Legumes

Eating plants is the key to a long, healthy and vibrant life and will help you have a trim waist, sharp mind, and healthy heart.

Plant-based diets are well known for reducing your risk of (and even reversing) many chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.  Study after study shows us what we know intuitively—eating a plant-based diet is really good for us.

A prospective study tracking 110,000 people over 22-24 years found that the more fruits and vegetables that were consumed, the lower the participants’ chances of developing heart disease. In fact, those who ate 5+ servings of fruits and veggies a day were 17 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke.

Another study following 160,000 women for 12-18 years observed that those who ate 2-3 servings of whole grains daily were 30 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

A plant-centered diet is the most nutritiously dense way to eat. The powerful antioxidants and phytochemicals contained in fruits and vegetables give them their vibrant colors, which is why some people say that when you eat plants, you ‘eat the rainbow.’ These rich compounds may improve your immunity and fend off disease.

Pillar 2: Choose Minimally Processed Foodsgear icon from the Healthy Eating Placemat

The second pillar is that everything you eat should be unprocessed or minimally processed. You must also avoid refined and highly processed foods that tend to have a high fat, sugar, and salt content.

A ‘minimally processed food’ is defined as food which requires very little (or no) processing or production that detracts from its nutritional value before we eat it. These foods also normally contain few (if any) added sugars, oils or salts.

Fresh fruits and veggies fall into this category as do frozen fruits and vegetables, which have been preserved when their nutrient content and freshness were at their peak.

When it comes to selecting what foods to eat, it is always best to stick close to the source – Mother Nature!

Pillar 3: Consume Lower Calorie Dense Foods

A third pillar is that you want to eat lower calorie dense foods.

Using calorie density is an easy, proven way to monitor your diet – one which incorporates both calorie and nutritional input.

Calorie density measures the number of calories in a given weight of food (normally it is calories per scale symbol from the Healthy Eating Placematpound or cal/lb.). Higher calorie dense foods will, therefore, have a lot of calories for a small weight while lower calorie-dense foods will have far fewer calories. For example, one pound of green beans has 140 calories while one pound of almonds is 2620 calories!

On average, people eat about 3-5 pounds of food per day. Choosing lower calorie dense foods allows us to consume the same amount of food in weight while consuming fewer calories. Even better, lower calorie dense foods (fruits, veggies, starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes) are also the most filling and nutrient dense.

Interestingly, Pillar 2 and Pillar 3 are often related. So minimally processed plant foods tend to be lower in calorie density but are still nutritionally rich and satiating.

Pillar 4: Avoid SOS

Make sure to avoid a high SOS diet.

SOS stands for salt, oils, and sugar—a harmful triumvirate which contributes to a variety of chronic SOS symbol from the Healthy Eating Placematailments, from cancer to cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and heart disease. Too much sugar (over 130 pounds a year for the average American in 2013!) leads to obesity and obesity-related diseases. And oil, as we explained in our article, The Good, Bad, and Ugly About Oils presents similar health risks.

Bottom line? Added SOS is (really) bad for your health.

Avoiding SOS can be tricky because they are ‘hidden’ ingredients in so many processed foods. Which is precisely why you want to keep close to the source and eat foods that are either unprocessed or minimally processed.

Pillar 5: Embrace Variety

The fifth and final pillar is to eat a variety of plant-based foods in each of the recommended food groups: fruits, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, intact whole grains, and legumes.

Variety is the spice of life, and it will ensure that you get a rich assortment of plant-based compounds from resistant starch to phytochemicals to antioxidants.

What About Calorie Density?

The centerpiece of our perfect plate is the concept of calorie density.

Healthy Eating Placemat Download

To construct a perfect plate, it is essential to focus on lower calorie dense foods.  When adding high-calorie dense choices, they should be used as a garnish or condiment to the dish.

Here are some practical tips for eating a lower calorie density diet:

  1. Hunger and Satiety: When hungry, eat until you are comfortably full. Avoid eating too little and starving yourself but also avoid overeating and stuffing yourself.
  1. Eat Meals in a Sequence: Start all your meals with a salad, soup, and/or fruit. This has the benefit of letting you fill up with foods that are lowest in calorie density first.
  1. Chew Your Calories: Avoid liquid calories. This is because liquids will not fill you up as much as solid foods with the same amount of calories.
  1. Dilution Is the Solution: To dilute the calorie density of your meals, fill 1/2 your plate (by visual volume) with intact whole grains, starchy vegetables, and/or legumes and the other half with non-starchy vegetables and/or fruit.
  1. Understand Calorie Density: Non-starchy vegetables are the lowest in calorie density while fats and oils are the highest. Every time you add fat or oil, you will increase the overall calorie density of the meal.  On the other hand, when you add non-starchy vegetables, you will lower the meal’s overall calorie density.

If one of your goals is to lose weight, you will want to limit the consumption of calorie dense foods, which include dried fruit and high-fat plant foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados, as well as processed whole grains like bread, bagels, crackers, dry cereal, tortillas, and popcorn.

When we designed the Food Day Challenge Menu Book, we took calorie density and its five principles into consideration. And to make it easy for you, we ‘color-coded’ each recipe so you can choose the best choices when it comes to calorie density.

So grab the Healthy Eating Placemat and follow the practical tips we included above to eat the ‘perfect plate’ of healthful, low-calorie dense, plant-based foods every day.