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March 2, 2012 > Get Your Plate in Shape for Better Health

Get Your Plate in Shape for Better Health

National Nutrition Month Focuses on the New 'My Plate' Dietary Guidelines

The old food pyramid most of us grew up with has been replaced by My Plate, an interactive, online tool for understanding and following the dietary guidelines issued by the United States Department of Agriculture. During National Nutrition Month in March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is encouraging everyone to "Get Your Plate in Shape" as a way to focus attention on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends that half the dinner plate be filled with fruits and vegetables.

"This year's National Nutrition Month is focused on My Plate, which is really a guide to healthy eating," said Maggie Villagomez, a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "It's a way of making sure your plate is filled with high-quality, nutritious foods. The focus is on more fruits and vegetables, and meals that are more natural and less processed."

According to the guidelines, the other quarter of the plate should be filled with lean protein and the final quarter with grains, preferably whole grains, with a side of low-fat dairy. The guidelines also call for smaller portion sizes and more physical activity.

"Being physically active is critical for keeping your weight down and reducing your risk for chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease," Villagomez said. "If you are not physically active now, start with 10 minutes a day and work your way up to 30 to 60 minutes a day. The key is to stick with it. Try to at least do a moderate-effort activity like brisk walking."

Size Matters

Villagomez said a good way to reduce portion sizes is to use a smaller plate. She recommends using an eight-inch plate, more like the size of an appetizer plate.

"That way the plate looks really full and you feel like you are getting a lot of food," she explained. "It's much easier to overeat when you use the standard 10-inch plate."

When filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, it's important to include a wide array of colors, especially dark green, red, and orange. Each color offers different vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy, according to Villagomez.

You can use fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruits and vegetables. If you use canned, be sure to use vegetables that have no added salt or low salt and fruit packed in its own juice with no added sugar.

Make at least half your grains whole grains. Choose brown rice, barley, oats, and whole grain breads, cereals and crackers.

"Check the list of ingredients to make sure the product contains whole grains," she said. "It needs to say 'whole wheat,' not just wheat flour. The word 'multigrain' doesn't necessarily mean it uses whole grain either. The label needs to use the word 'whole' to ensure you are getting whole grain. And whole grain should be first in the list of ingredients."

Keep it Lean

Good sources of lean protein include seafood, lean meat, and poultry, as well as nuts, beans, and eggs. You should try to eat seafood twice a week and make one meal a week meatless, according to Villagomez.

"Making one meal meatless is good for the environment and it can help cut your fat and calorie intake," she said. "Choose a plant-based protein source like nuts, beans, or tofu."

You can also reduce the amount of fat and calories you consume by using fat-free or low-fat dairy products, which have the same amount of calcium and other nutrients as the full-fatted versions.

The guidelines also call for reducing the amount of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats you eat. Avoiding soda and other sugary drinks as well as processed and fast foods can help.

"Cook at home as often as possible," Villagomez suggested. "That way you can control what goes into the food you eat. Try cooking with fresh herbs and spices to help reduce the amount of salt you use. Use healthy fats like olive or canola oil."

Better Health

Following the My Plate guidelines can help improve your health and reduce your risk for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.

For example, reducing the amount of salt in your diet can help keep your blood pressure down. Whole grains can help to keep your blood sugar and cholesterol under control. Reducing the amount of calories and fat in your diet can help keep your weight and cholesterol levels down. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help to prevent some cancers.

"The risk factors for a number of chronic diseases are similar, and eating a nutrient-rich diet that is low in salt, sugar, and fat can help to prevent those diseases and slow their progression," Villagomez said.

For information and tools to help you follow the dietary guidelines for a healthy diet, visit www.ChooseMyPlate.gov. To learn more about nutrition counseling services available at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com/nutrition or call (510) 745-6542.

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