- Learn how to build a healthy plate
A History of Food Guidance in the U.S.
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the D.R.I. are important scientific reports to educate health professionals about nutrition and to guide government and other health-related organizations to develop evidence-based health policies that improve the health of all Americans. The United States government has also been providing food and nutrition guidance directly to the public for more than a century to help individuals make healthier dietary and lifestyle choices. You may have heard about “the Four Food Groups” or “The Food Guide Pyramid” or most recently, “My Plate.” The government food guidance system has evolved over the years as our understanding of nutrition science and the impact of diet and lifestyle on health has grown. If you are interested in learning more about the history of food guidance in the U.S. a list and description of former tools can be found at this website.
MyPlate is the most up-to-date nutrition teaching tool. MyPlate was developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion as an easy-to-use visual guide to help all Americans develop healthy eating patterns. It replaces the former MyPyramid teaching tool and correlates with the 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
MyPlate organizes foods with similar nutritional value into specific food groups and provides recommendations about how to build a healthy diet. The MyPlate.gov website also provides a wide range of support materials including information about each food group, an individualized meal planner, recipes, and professional videos and handouts such as the MyPlate, MyWins poster shown below to support learning for people of all ages.
MyPlate Key Messages include:
- Focus on whole fruits
- Vary your veggies
- Vary your protein routine
- Make half your grains whole grains
- Move to low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt
- Drink and eat beverages and food with less sodium saturated fat and added sugars
- Start with small changes that you can enjoy, like having an extra piece of fruit today
To learn more about MyPlate visit this website.
Building a Healthy Plate: Choose Nutrient-Dense Foods
Click on the different food groups listed to view their food gallery:
Planning a healthy diet using the MyPlate approach is not difficult. According to the icon, half of your plate should have fruits and vegetables, one-quarter should have whole grains, and one-quarter should have protein. Dairy products should be low-fat or non-fat. The ideal diet gives you the most nutrients within the fewest calories. This means choosing nutrient-rich foods.
Fill half of your plate with red, orange, and dark green vegetables and fruits, such as kale, bok choy, kalo (taro), tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, apples, mango, papaya, guavas, blueberries, and strawberries in main and side dishes. Vary your choices to get the benefit of as many different vegetables and fruits as you can. You may choose to drink fruit juice as a replacement for eating fruit. (As long as the juice is 100 percent fruit juice and only half your fruit intake is replaced with juice, this is an acceptable exchange.) For snacks, eat fruits, vegetables, or unsalted nuts.
Fill a quarter of your plate with grains such as cereals, bread, crackers, rice, and pasta. Half of your daily grain intake should be whole grains. Read the ingredients list on food labels carefully to determine if a food is comprised of whole grains such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole grain oats.
Select a variety of protein foods to improve nutrient intake and promote health benefits. Each week, be sure to include a nice array of protein sources in your diet, such as nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, poultry, soy, and seafood. The recommended consumption amount for seafood for adults is two 4-ounce servings per week. When choosing meat, select lean cuts. Be conscious to prepare meats using little or no added saturated fat, such as butter.
If you enjoy drinking milk or eating milk products, such as cheese and yogurt, choose low-fat or nonfat products. Low-fat and nonfat products contain the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole-milk products, but with much less fat and calories. Calcium, an important mineral for your body, is also available in lactose-free and fortified soy beverage and rice beverage products. You can also get calcium in vegetables and other fortified foods and beverages. You can learn more about “dairy-free” sources of calcium by clicking the “Dairy” link on the MyPlate website.
Fats are essential for your diet as they contain valuable essential fatty acids, but the type you choose and the amount you consume are important. Be sure to choose primarily plant-based liquid oils like olive, soybean, and canola oil rather than solid animal fats like butter and lard. You can also get oils from many types of fish, as well as avocados, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Although oils are essential for health they do contain about 120 calories per tablespoon. It is vital to balance oil consumption with total caloric intake. The Nutrition Facts label provides the information to help you make healthful decisions.
In short, substituting vegetables and fruits in place of foods high in added sugars, solid/saturated fats, and sodium is a good way to make a nutrient-poor diet healthy again. Vegetables are full of nutrients and antioxidants that help promote good health and reduce the risk for developing chronic diseases such as stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Starting with these small shifts in your diet as mentioned above will boost your overall health profile.
The MyPlate Planner can be used to create an individualized plan with the number of servings and portion sizes from each food group to eat each day to achieve a healthy diet. You can access the MyPlate Planner from the MyPlate website:
Healthy Eating Index
To assess whether the American diet is conforming to the Dietary Guidelines, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (C.N.P.P.), a division of the USDA, uses a standardized tool called the Healthy Eating Index (H.E.I.)1.
The first H.E.I. was developed in 1995 and revised in 2006. This tool is a simple scoring system of dietary components. The data for scoring diets were taken from national surveys of particular population subgroups, such as children from low-income families or Americans over the age of sixty-five. Diets are broken down into several food categories including milk, whole fruits, dark green and orange vegetables, whole grains, and saturated fat, and then a score is given based on the amount consumed. For example, a score of ten is given if a 2,000-kilocalorie diet includes greater than 2.6 cups of milk per day. If less than 10 percent of total calories in a diet are from saturated fat, a score of eight is given. All of the scores are added up from the different food categories and the diets are given an H.E.I. score. Using this standardized diet-assessment tool at different times, every ten years, for instance, the C.N.P.P. can determine if the eating habits of certain groups of the American population are getting better or worse. The H.E.I. tool provides the federal government with information to make policy changes to better the diets of the American people.
For more information on the H.E.I., visit this website.
1 Healthy Eating Index. US Department of Agriculture. Updated January 31, 2019. Accessed June 18, 2019.
The Whole Nutrient Package versus Disease
A healthy diet incorporating seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables has been shown in many scientific studies to reduce cardiovascular disease and overall deaths attributable to cancer. The W.H.O. states that insufficient fruit and vegetable intake is linked to approximately 14 percent of gastrointestinal cancer deaths, about 11 percent of heart attack deaths, and 9 percent of stroke deaths globally 2.
The W.H.O. estimates that, overall, 2.7 million deaths could be avoided annually by increasing fruit and vegetable intake. These preventable deaths place an economic, social, and mental burden on society. This is why, in 2003, the W.H.O. and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations launched a campaign to promote fruit and vegetable intake worldwide.
2 Global Strategies on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/fruit/en/index.html. Accessed June 18, 2019.
Antioxidant Variety in Food Provides Health Benefits
Not only has the several-billion-dollar supplement industry inundated us with FDA-unapproved health claims, but science is continuously advancing and providing us with a multitude of promising health benefits from particular fruits, vegetables, teas, herbs, and spices. For instance, blueberries protect against cardiovascular disease, an apple or pear a day reduces stroke risk by over 52 percent, eating more carrots significantly reduces the risk of bladder cancer, drinking tea reduces cholesterol and helps glucose homeostasis, and cinnamon blocks infection and reduces the risk of some cancers. However, recall that science also tells us that no one nutrient alone is shown to provide these effects.
What micronutrient and phytochemical sources are best at protecting against chronic disease? All of them, together. Just as there is no wonder supplement or drug, there is no superior fruit, vegetable, spice, herb, or tea that protects against all diseases. A review in the July–August 2010 issue of Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity concludes that the plant-food benefits to health are attributed to two main factors—that nutrients and phytochemicals are present at low concentrations in general, and that the complex mixtures of nutrients and phytochemicals provide additive and synergistic effects.3 In short, don’t overdo it with supplements, and make sure you incorporate a wide variety of nutrients in your diet.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals promotes health. An analysis of The Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study reported that for every increased serving of fruits or vegetables per day, especially green leafy vegetables and vitamin C-rich fruits, there was a 4 percent lower risk for heart disease.4
Two eating plans that emphasize fruits and vegetables are the Mediterranean Style Eating Plan described in the next section and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (D.A.S.H. diet). The D.A.S.H. diet is an eating plan that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat. Fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, whole-grain foods, fish, poultry, and nuts are emphasized while red meats, sweets, and sugar-containing beverages are mostly avoided. Results from a follow-up study published in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Human Hypertension suggest the low-sodium D.A.S.H. diet reduces oxidative stress, which may have contributed to the improved blood vessel function observed in salt-sensitive people (between 10 to 20 percent of the population).5,6
3 Bouayed, J. and T. Bohn. Exogenous Antioxidants—Double-Edged Swords in Cellular Redox State: Health Beneficial Effects at Physiologic Doses versus Deleterious Effects at High Doses. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. 2010; 3(4), 228–37. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2952083/?tool=pubmed. Accessed June 18, 2019.
4 Sofi F, et al.Adherence to Mediterranean Diet and Health Status: Meta-Analysis. Br Med J. 2008; 337, a1344. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2533524/. Accessed June 18, 2019.
5 Al-Solaiman Y, et al. Low-Sodium D.A.S.H. Reduces Oxidative Stress and Improves Vascular Function in Salt-Sensitive Humans. J Hum Hypertens. 2008; 12, 826–35. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2783838/?tool=pubmed. Accessed June 18, 2019.
6 Joshipura KJ, et al. The Effect of Fruit and Vegetable Intake on Risk for Coronary Heart Disease. Ann Intern Med. 2001; 134(12), 1106–14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11412050. Accessed June 18, 2019.
Americans Typically Eat Fewer than the Recommended Servings of High-Quality Food-Group Foods
An article in the January 2009 issue of the Medscape Journal of Medicine reports that fewer than one in ten Americans consumes the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, which is between five and thirteen servings per day8. According to this study, the largest single contributor to fruit intake was orange juice, and potatoes were the dominant vegetable.
The USDA recommends that you fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. The number of servings of fruits and vegetables that a person should consume every day is dependent on age, sex, and level of physical activity. For example, a forty-year-old male who exercises for sixty minutes per day should consume 2 cups of fruit and 3½ cups of vegetables, while a fifteen-year-old female who exercises for thirty minutes per day should consume 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables. (One cup of a fruit or vegetable is equal to one banana, one small apple, twelve baby carrots, one orange, or one large sweet potato.) To find out the number of fruits and vegetables the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, see Note 8.25 “Interactive 8.4”.
7 Kimmons J, et al. Fruit, and Vegetable Intake among Adolescents and Adults in the United States: Percentage Meeting Individualized Recommendations. Medscape Journal of Medicine. 2009; 11(1), 26. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654704/?tool=pubmed. Accessed November 22, 2017.
Improving Fruit and Vegetable Intake at Home and in Your Community
Eating more fruits and vegetables can make you think better, too. According to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, no matter your age, eating more fruits and vegetables improves your brain function8. Check out Note 8.26 “Interactive 8.5” for thirteen fun ways to increase your fruit and vegetable intake.
The CDC has developed seven strategies to increase American’s intake of fruits and vegetables9.
- Support local and state governments in the implementation of a Food Policy Council, which develops policies and programs that increase the availability of affordable fruits and vegetables.
- In the food system, increase the availability and affordability of high-quality fruits and vegetables in underserved populations.
- Promote farm-to-where-you-are programs, which is the delivery of regionally grown farm produce to community institutions, farmers markets, and individuals.
- Encourage worksites, medical centers, universities, and other community and business establishments to serve more fruits and vegetables in cafeterias and onsite eateries.
- Support schools in developing healthy food messages to students by incorporating activities such as gardening into curricula.
- Encourage the development and support of community and home gardens.
- Have emergency food programs, including food banks and food rescue programs, increase their supply of fruits and vegetables.
- The seven strategies developed by the CDC are based on the idea that improving access to and availability of fruits and vegetables will lead to an increase in their consumption.
8 Polidori MC, et al. High Fruit, and Vegetable Intake Is Positively Correlated with Antioxidant Status and Cognitive Performance in Healthy Subjects. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2009; 17(4), 921–7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19542607. Accessed June 18, 2019.
9 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strategies to Prevent Obesity and Other Chronic Diseases: The CDC Guide to Strategies to Increase the Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2011. Accessed June 18, 2019.
- MyPlate encourages all plates to be filled with fruits and vegetables (50 percent), protein (25 percent), and grains (25 percent). At least half of daily grain intake should be from whole-grain sources. Dairy choices should be switched to low-fat or non-fat sources.
- A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables will help you lose and/or maintain weight, will lower your risk for stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, and will boost your overall health profile.
- Choose nutrient-dense foods most of the time.
1. How do your regular dietary habits compare to MyPlate? What changes, if any, would you have to make to your meals to meet the MyPlate guidelines?
- The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Food Science and Human Nutrition Program: Allison Calabrese, Cheryl Gibby, Billy Meinke, Marie Kainoa Fialkowski Revilla, and Alan Titchenal