Choose My Plate To Kick-Start Your Health Routine This Spring


UPDATED: Wednesday March 27, 2013 3:48 PM

For years, the Food Pyramid, also called My Pyramid, was used to help people follow a balanced diet. Its replacement, called Choose My Plate, was introduced in 2011, along with updated dietary and exercise guidelines. The latest revision includes information on how to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet, as well as material on healthy and unhealthy fats and carbohydrate choices. Physical activity recommendations are also included. The recommendation to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables has remained constant with past dietary guidelines.

Your health care provider or a registered dietitian can help you improve your eating habits. You can also visit the USDA's website, which will calculate your daily calorie needs according to your age, gender, and amount of physical activity you get. The website also offers tips and suggestions on good nutrition.

Grains

Fiber may help protect you from diabetes, heart disease, and excess weight gain. Whole grains are a great source of fiber and antioxidants, so at least half of your daily grain servings should be whole-grain products. Choose brown rice and whole-grain bread rather than white rice and white bread since they are whole-grain products. One ounce equals 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta, a slice of bread, or 1 cup of dry cereal.

Tips: Start the day with oatmeal and end it with whole-wheat pasta for dinner.

Fruits and vegetables

Americans average 4.7 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That may not be enough to prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. As a reference, a 2,000-calorie diet should include nine servings, or 4.5 cups, of produce a day. Aim for variety by including dark green, orange, red, and yellow veggies, as well as starchy ones such as potatoes. Consume peas or other legumes several times a week.

Tips: Top cereal with fruit. Snack on precut veggies.

Sugar

Although sugar is a carbohydrate, it offers few nutrients and is loaded with calories, also known as "empty calories." Many people seem to have a sweet tooth--and the waistline that goes with it. Americans average 31 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Approximately one-third of all that sugar comes from soft drinks. If you drink soft drinks, focus on decreasing your consumption.

Tips: Drink water and beverages without added sugar. Share high-calorie desserts or, have fruit instead.

Dairy

The calcium and vitamin D in milk-based products help keep bones strong. The guidelines recommend drinking 3 cups of nonfat or low-fat milk a day. Low-fat yogurt and cheese are good choices, too. Children younger than age 2 years need more fat in their diet, so they should consume dairy products made from whole milk.

Tips: Stir some nonfat milk into your daily cup of coffee. Have a low-fat yogurt as a snack.

Protein

Foods that consist of meat, poultry, and seafood are all a part of the animal protein group. Beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts, and seeds are also considered protein foods and should be eaten along with meat products for your protein source.  

Tips: Including other sources of protein will provide fiber and vitamins lacking in animal sources of protein and will reduce your fat intake.

Fats

Only 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat. Less than 10 percent of that should be from saturated fat. Red meat and full-fat dairy products are common sources. Aim for less than 300 mg of cholesterol a day and as little trans fat as possible. Limit processed foods that are made with trans fats. Consuming a lot of saturated and trans fats and cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease.

Eat foods that contain healthier fats, such as certain oils, fish, and nuts, in moderation. Their polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids help protect the heart, but are still high in calories.

Tips: Use canola oil or olive oil for cooking. Sprinkle almonds on salads.

Sodium and potassium

Do you know why these nutrients are important? Too much sodium and too little potassium can lead to high blood pressure. Consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium a day, which is equal to 1 teaspoon of table salt. Avoid processed foods, which generally account for 75 percent of salt intake. Eat more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, beet greens, baked potatoes, and lentils.

Tips: Buy low-sodium foods. Put away the salt shaker and don’t add salt when cooking.

Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages provide calories without nutrition. Drinking too much increases your risk for liver damage, certain cancers, and accidental injury. The dietary guidelines address alcohol use specifically. Women should have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two. A drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Tips: Drink alcohol-free beer. Have sparkling water instead of wine. Have a wine spritzer made with half wine and half club soda.

Emphasis on exercise

You can help prevent diabetes, heart disease, and cancer by maintaining a healthy weight. To avoid extra pounds, you need to burn as many calories as you consume. For many people, that means eating less and exercising more. To prevent disease, be physically active for at least 30 minutes on most days. Work up to 60 minutes to lose weight. To keep it off, exercise for 60 to 90 minutes a day.

How to fit it in

These tips may help:

  • Replace coffee breaks with 10-minute walks.
  • Take the stairs, walk around the mall before shopping, or park a few blocks from work.
  • Use a treadmill, stationary bicycle, or hand weights while watching TV.
  • Rely on human power. Use a push lawn mower instead of a self-propelled model.
  • Bike, skate, hike, or dance in your free time.

Tips for sticking with it

You can help make exercise become a habit:

  • Start slowly. Give muscles and joints time to get in shape.
  • Choose activities you enjoy so that you’ll look forward to exercising.
  • Combat boredom. Change your walking route, bike some days, and swim others. Try other forms of exercise, such as martial arts, Pilates, or another type of fitness class.

If you have a chronic illness, haven’t been active in a while, or are age 40 or older, check with your health care provider before beginning any exercise program.