The Basics of Building a Healthy Plate

With all of the health-related information available these days, it’s sometimes difficult to know what foods to choose for meals and snacks. Good news: choosing and eating healthy meals and snacks doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive, and it can still taste good. One definition of the word “healthy” is indicative of, conducive to, or promoting good health. By that definition, there are a few simple points to keep in mind that can assist you in building a healthy plate without much fuss.

Many people probably remember the Food Pyramid or the many other versions of it that have existed over the years. The goal of these guides is to promote eating in a varied and balanced way. Variety refers to a bunch of different kinds of foods and is necessary for optimal intake of nutrients. Balance refers to eating these foods in proportions that are most beneficial to the body. The latest guide to healthy eating is called MyPlate, and its goal is to provide a visual representation of what variety and balance would look like at each meal. Below is an adapted version of the USDA’s MyPlate. This version divides a typical dinner plate into five sections: Whole Grains & Starches, Proteins, Healthy Fats, Digestives, Vegetables, and Fruits

Image from Bastyr Center for Natural Health. Click HERE to view an enlarged version.

Whole Grains & Starches: Include high-fiber whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole grain breads and pastas, or starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, corn, and peas. Whole grains and starches make up about 1/4 of a plate. Be mindful of refined grains (white bread, white rice, pasta), and consider choosing whole grains half of the time.

Proteins: Include a variety of plant proteins such as beans, nuts, and seeds, as well as animal proteins like fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Proteins make up about 1/4 of a plate.

Healthy Fats: Include fats from whole foods such as avocado, nuts, and seeds. Use cold-pressed oils such as olive oil and sesame oil for dressings and marinades; use olive oil, coconut oil, and butter for cooking and baking. Fats make up a small portion of a plate, about the size of a ping pong ball, and are often included in cooking, e.g. chicken roasted with some olive oil.

Digestives (also known as probiotics): Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, miso, tempeh, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kefir, and fermented vegetables can aid in immune function, digestion, and support the normal flora of the digestive tract. Stay tuned for an upcoming post outlining the details of these foods.

Vegetables: Fill your plate with a variety of raw and cooked vegetables, making sure to choose different colors, e.g. dark green (broccoli, spinach), orange/red (tomatoes, bell peppers), purple (eggplant, red onion), white (cauliflower, onion, garlic), etc. Vegetables make up about 2/3 of a plate.

Fruits: Consume a variety of fruits with meals, snacks, or as a refreshing dessert choice. Fruit makes up to 1/4 of a plate and sometimes shares space with vegetables.

A couple more things: Water is included as the most healthful beverage to go along with meals (don’t forget the importance of staying hydrated!), and 8-12 oz. per meal and snack is generally appropriate. Also, you may have noticed some information on the graphic about choosing organic, free-range, grass-fed products. If these are accessible to you and you desire to choose them, that’s great; if they’re not accessible to you, don’t worry, and don’t let it cause you stress. You’ll reap the benefits of a balanced and varied plate, regardless of whether or not you choose organic products.

Below are some photos representing balanced meals with good variety.

Salmon (protein + fat) with brown rice (whole grain) and mixed vegetables.
Roast (protein + fat), potatoes and peas (starch), carrots and cabbage (vegetables). Note: the meat portion on this plate is extra large.
Pizza: crust (grain), cheese (protein + fat), peppers/onions and sauce (vegetable). Note: thin crust pizza generally provides adequate grain component.
Deli sandwich/wrap: bread/tortilla/pita (grain), ham/turkey (protein), lettuce and tomato (vegetable). Note: choose whole grain bread/tortilla/pita if available, pair with fruit or vegetable, and add mayonnaise, cheese, or chips for fat.
Hamburger: bun (grain), hamburger patty (protein +fat), lettuce/onion/tomato (vegetable), cheese or mayonnaise (fat).
Yogurt parfait: yogurt (protein + fat + digestive), granola (whole grain + fat), berries (fruit). Note: be mindful of sugar content in both yogurt and granola, and choose Greek yogurt for extra protein.

As you can see, there are many commonly eaten meals that can easily fit into a health-promoting lifestyle. When attempting to adopt healthier habits, remember to make small changes and to avoid doing too much, too soon. A series of small changes made over time is much more sustainable and beneficial than totally overhauling your diet for a few weeks, becoming overwhelmed, and throwing in the towel. Below are some examples of SMART goals than can assist you in making sustainable, health-promoting choices:

  • Each day for lunch this week, I will eat an apple in addition to my regularly eaten peanut butter sandwich.
  • When ordering a hamburger, I will order it with lettuce, tomato, and onion, and/or have a side salad with it.
  • Next time I go grocery shopping, I’ll purchase two vegetables of different colors, e.g. broccoli and red peppers, to have with dinners a few times during the week.
  • Instead of eating sugary cereal for breakfast, I’ll have some oatmeal with blueberries and Greek yogurt.

Regardless of whether you plan meals and snacks ahead of time, regularly choose to eat out, or spontaneously put together several food items in hopes of it making a satisfactory meal, aiming for variety and balance as outlined above can go a long way in helping you to find better health if you desire it.


How To Read Nutrition Facts Labels

If you’ve been following along with the blog, you’ll recall several references to nutrition facts labels, which are found on packaged food products and can assist you in making health-promoting decisions about food. Specifically, these labels may come in handy when considering dietary fat, cholesterol, sodium, fiber, and sugar. 

With countless packaged food products available these days, nutrition facts labels can also be overwhelming and confusing, which is frustrating and definitely not health-promoting. Read on to learn how to understand them and use them to your benefit.

The graphic below is from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is an example of a nutrition facts label for macaroni and cheese. It’s divided into sections and color-coded for explanation purposes, but note that there are not sections or colors on any labels that you’ll see on products you’re purchasing.

  • Serving Size indicates the amount of food/beverage that is referenced on the Nutrition Facts label. The Servings Per Container indicates how many servings are included in the entire package. So, one serving of macaroni and cheese is one cup, and there are two cups total in the entire package.
  • Calories are a measure of energy received by ingesting a food/beverage. In the example, there are 250 calories per one cup of macaroni and cheese, which means there are 500 calories total in the package.

Note: if you’ve not yet read the previous posts about dietary fat, sodium, and fiber, click the links to do that now.

  • Trans Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium may be of particular interest here depending on individual health concerns. As a reminder, it’s best to avoid intake of Trans Fats. Some people may also be advised to limit intake of Saturated Fat and/or Cholesterol. Stay tuned for future posts on both of those.
  • Fiber and Sugar are of particular interest here. We know that most of us don’t get enough fiber and that fiber is good for stabilizing blood sugar. Use this simple math to choose foods that are a good source of fiber:
    • Divide the grams of Carbohydrates by 10. The result is how many grams of fiber you want. In the sample label above, there are 31 grams of Total Carbohydrate. 31/10 = 3.1 desired grams of Dietary Fiber.
    • Compare that number with grams of Dietary Fiber listed. As you can see, this particular variety of macaroni and cheese contains 0 grams of Dietary Fiber, which is less than the desired 3.1 grams, so you may want to look around for a whole grain variety, which would likely contain some fiber.
             Whole grain pasta is a good source of fiber and is often dark in color.

As you can see, there are a couple other things that could be considered when looking at a Nutrition Facts label. The Footnote (5) and The Percent Daily Value (%DV) (6) both provide additional information, though they are in reference to needs of 2,000 calories per day, which may not be applicable to everyone since calorie needs vary from person to person. You’ll also notice that there are some vitamins and minerals listed on the sample label above in blue. Generally speaking, the higher the percentage of vitamins and minerals the better. Note though, that vitamins and minerals are found in high quantities of foods that don’t usually have a label, e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables, so you’ll hopefully be getting vitamins and minerals from those foods, too.

One more thing: as if there wasn’t already enough to consider when trying to decipher Nutrition Facts labels, the FDA has issued an update to the label and has begun rolling out changes. Below is a graphic representing the old label (left) vs. the new label (right), which will likely be phased in over the next couple of years. The most important thing to note on the new label is the Added Sugars, which highlights the amount of sugar added to a food or drink, i.e. not found naturally in the product. Generally speaking, the lower the amount of Added Sugars, the better, but stay tuned for a future post on all things sugar.

Whew, that was a lot. If you made it all the way through, you’ll hopefully now have a better understanding of how to use Nutrition Facts labels to your benefit. Give them a look the next time you have a few minutes to spare while grocery shopping, and know that understanding and using them becomes easier with practice. As always, don’t hesitate to email with any questions!

Dietary Fat: The Good, The Bad, and The Yummy

Dietary fat has been a hot topic in nutrition for a long time. Should you eat fat? Is fat bad for you? Will eating fat make you fat? There’s a lot to consider, and it’s easy to become confused.

The truth is that dietary fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet, but not all fats are created equal. Read on to learn about why we need fat, the different types of dietary fat, and in what foods you can find them.

Fat is one of the three macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrates, which means that it’s required in the human diet. The body needs fat to survive and thrive. Fat helps with absorption of some vitamins, it assists the brain and nervous system in functioning properly, it’s required for healthy hormone production, it protects internal organs, and it helps to maintain healthy skin and keep the body warm. It’s becoming increasingly understood that adopting a low-fat diet is not necessarily the way to achieve health, and part of the reason is because of all of the important functions of fat.

That said, not all fats are created equal. Some dietary fats promote health, and some contribute to disease. Below is a breakdown of several types of fat. After reading, you’ll have gained some knowledge about which fats will help you live a healthier life, and which ones you may want to limit. Trans fats are often used to give certain foods a desirable taste and texture. They are most commonly found in packaged baked goods, e.g. pies, cakes, donuts, and cookies, and they’re also found in some fried foods. On a food label, trans fats typically go by the name partially hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are problematic in that they lower “good” cholesterol (HDL) while raising “bad” cholesterol (LDL). They are known to increase the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It is recommended to drastically decrease intake of these fats, or to eliminate them completely. Scanning food labels for the words ‘partially hydrogenated’ is a good way to start identifying trans fat.

Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. They most commonly come from animal products, such as dairy and meat. Think butter, or that nice marbling in your favorite rib-eye steak. Excess saturated fat in the diet has been linked to high cholesterol but can be eaten in moderation. Coconut oil is a plant-based type of saturated fat and is known to have health-promoting properties; it can be used in place of butter when sautéing or baking.

Monounsaturated fats are considered “good fats” and are liquid at room temperature. They’re known to be heart-healthy and are found in olive oil, most nuts, and avocados. They’re also found in peanut and sunflower oils, though it is recommended to prioritize eating whole foods versus oils, i.e. it would be better to choose a handful of peanuts than to eat something fried in peanut oil. Again, moderation is key.

Polyunsaturated fats are also considered “good fats” and are liquid at room temperature. They contain essential fatty acids, which the body cannot produce and therefore has to receive from the diet. The two types of essential fatty acids are omega-3 and omega-6. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, as are walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, such as sunflower, canola, safflower, and corn oil. Note: the standard American diet generally contains adequate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and is lacking in omega-3s. Stay tuned for a post highlighting the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.

This post only scratches the surface of dietary fat, but know this: dietary fat is necessary, but not all fats are created equal. On the road, healthy fats can be found in convenience foods like unsalted nuts and seeds, nut butters such as almond and peanut butter, and canned tuna. Olive oil can be used as a healthy alternative to vegetable oils when cooking, and it’s best to limit fried foods and packaged baked goods. Above all, remember that variety and moderation are key: don’t go on a low-fat diet, but don’t have that rib-eye every day either.


This post was written in large part by Taylor Beard, dietetic intern at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Taylor will be eligible to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in May of 2018.


Fiber: Why It’s Important and How To Make Sure You’re Eating Enough

You may have heard that you need fiber, but why is it so necessary? What is fiber, and how can it help you feel better? More importantly, how can you make sure that you’re eating enough fiber while on the road?

Let’s start with the basics. Fiber is a carbohydrate found in some foods: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans are some examples. The body cannot digest fiber, which is why fiber helps to keep things moving smoothly through your digestive system; it passes through and comes out as waste.

Fiber is a powerhouse that keeps your body healthy in several ways. Fiber may lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease, it may help prevent and combat diabetes, and it may assist in weight management by promoting a feeling of fullness. That being said, many people are most fond of fiber’s role in promoting regular bowel movements. Constipation is a common problem among adults, especially in jobs with limited physical activity, such as truck driving. Adequate fiber intake can assist in preventing constipation, as well as other conditions of the digestive system, like diarrhea, colitis (painful inflammation in your colon) and hemorrhoids. For more information on the benefits of fiber click here.

So, how much fiber do you actually need to eat? Women need at least 25 grams per day, and men need at least 38 grams. This is in stark contrast to data showing that American adults consume only about 15 grams of fiber per day. It’s no wonder that the health of so many individuals is suffering.

Where do you get fiber while on the road? This can be tricky, but with a little bit of investigating, you can find good choices in almost all gas stations and restaurants. Some good options include fresh fruit and/or vegetable cups, popcorn, and oatmeal. If these items aren’t available, you can look for things like granola bars that include whole grains and oats. Below are 10 convenient and easy ways to incorporate fiber into your diet while on the road.

  1. Eat popcorn as a snack. Most gas stations carry some variety of this snack, which packs around 4 grams of fiber per serving.
  2. When at restaurants, choose vegetables or sweet potatoes as a side. You’ll get both fiber and a ton of nutrients without even having to think about it.
  3. Oatmeal is your fiber friend. Many gas stations stock cups of oatmeal that only require water and a microwave to prepare. When choosing flavored oatmeal, choose the option with the lowest sugar content for optimal health. 
  4. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables. Most gas stations offer fruit or vegetable cups and/or individual apples, oranges, and bananas that you can pick up easily. Whether as a snack or as part of a meal, fruits and vegetables are sure to increase your fiber intake. Don’t worry too much about dipping raw vegetables in some type of dressing; you’re still reaping the benefits of fiber, regardless of whether or not vegetables are eaten plain.
  5. Look for meal replacement bars. While fiber from whole foods is best, sometimes the only available option is a meal replacement bar. Look for ones that contain at least 4 grams of fiber per serving, such as Larabars, KIND bars, Quaker Breakfast Bars, or Belvita Breakfast Biscuits.
  6. Choose soups that have beans and/or vegetables. Black bean soup is a great choice that you can find at many restaurants, and a traditional vegetable soup is also a great option.
  7. Choose yogurt cups with granola and fruit. These are available at many gas stations and restaurants. As with oatmeal, choose the option lowest in sugar to promote optimal health.
  8. Look for whole grains. If there is a whole grain option available, choose that. For example, if you stop at Subway, choose the 9-Grain Wheat or 9-Grain Honey Oat bread. These breads are made of whole grains and contain more fiber than other options. For packaged products, you can read the ingredients of the product (found near the Nutrition Facts label), and look for whole grain as part of the description. Stay tuned for a full post on tips for reading those pesky Nutrition Facts labels.
  9. Choose nuts and seeds. These foods usually contain a good amount of fiber, and they can be found at nearly all stops. Make sure to choose unsalted versions at least some of the time! See our previous blog post on sodium for more information.
  10. Speaking of nuts and seeds, trail mix is easy and convenient. It can be found at most stops, and it includes multiple sources of fiber (fruits, nuts, seeds). Again as with oatmeal, choose the option lowest in sugar.

Whew, that was a lot. Adequate fiber intake is essential, and it’s important that you incorporate it into your diet whenever possible. One important note: make sure that when you increase your fiber consumption, you also increase your water consumption. Water is the key to helping fiber move through your digestive system, and inadequate water intake can contribute to some really unpleasant gut discomfort.

Getting enough fiber can be tricky at first, but with a little dedication and practice, you’ll soon be consuming recommended amounts and feeling so much better.

This post was written in large part by Taylor Beard, dietetic intern at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Taylor will be eligible to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in May of 2018.

Tips for Reducing Sodium Intake

Sodium is a hot topic in nutrition these days. Most of us know that this little mineral is a huge part of the American diet in the form of salt and that it’s found in excess in many foods. Some of us may even be dealing with the side effects of too much sodium and may be confused about how to reduce the amount of it that we eat.

On one hand, humans need sodium to survive. Our nerves and muscles use it to transmit signals, and it helps our bodies to maintain a fluid balance so that we do not get over or under hydrated. Sodium is used in many important functions in the body, and without it, we would die.

On the other hand, consuming too much sodium can have serious effects on health. We’ve heard the statistics about hypertension, i.e. high blood pressure, which occurs when the force of blood going through blood vessels is too high. Hypertension is commonly contributed to by excess sodium consumption and can lead to even larger health issues, including stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, vision loss, and sexual dysfunction.

So, how much sodium should we be eating every day? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people eat no more than 2,300 milligrams—or one teaspoon—of sodium per day. As you might imagine, most people eat much more than this. Salt tastes good. It adds flavor to foods, and it’s used in a lot of packaged and canned foods as a preservative. Additionally, most restaurant menus include high-sodium options.

Reducing the amount of salt eaten can seem difficult at first, but with a few small and easy changes, you can reduce your risk of health complications related to excess sodium intake. For some handy tips on how to manage or reduce your sodium intake while on the road, read below.

  • Put down the saltshaker when eating at restaurants. Most restaurant items already contain excessive amounts of sodium, and adding more isn’t doing your health any favors. If you’re concerned about the loss of flavor, you can bring your own sodium-free seasonings to restaurants. Products like Mrs. Dash are widely available at grocery stores nationwide. You can also get in the habit of using the saltshaker less and less, so as to wean yourself off of such salty flavor. For example, if you’re used to three shakes of salt your green beans, start trying only two shakes.
  • Ask for sauce on the side. A lot of sauces, dressings, and condiments are high in sodium. When eating out, ask to receive sauces and dressings on the side. This way, you can control how much you’re using, and it’s easier to monitor your intake.
  • Watch out for nuts. Nuts are a delicious, healthy, and easily accessible snack option. When choosing nuts, unsalted or lightly salted varieties are advised. Salted, dry roasted, or flavored nuts often contain high amounts of sodium. The same goes for sunflower seeds.
  • Choose fruits, vegetables, salads, or plain baked potatoes as side items. In addition to having much less sodium than fried items or those that come with a sauce, fruits and vegetables provide additional nutrients which may help offset the effects of excess sodium intake.
  • Choose low or reduced sodium varieties of canned and packaged foods.  There are low sodium versions of most things these days, you just have to do a little label reading.

Sodium can be a confusing topic, and it’s lurking around in many foods, often in extra high amounts. The good news is that with a little knowledge and effort, sodium intake can be managed, which may have an immensely positive impact on long-term health.

This post was written in large part by Taylor Beard, dietetic intern at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Taylor will be eligible to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in May of 2018.