When most of us sit down to eat we eat off of a plate.
Many of us never learned that a plate is an ideal measurement tool for the ratio of foods we consume. This is because a plate is effectively a real life pie chart.
Learn how to use your plate to reach your goals
An important component of your diet is the ratio of foods you eat. If you are like many people you eat too many carbs, and not enough of most other nutrients.
You can easily see (and adjust) the ratio by simply looking at your plate and the amount of space each food takes up. But you don’t just have to adjust just one thing, you can build a complete diet plan by preplanning how much space certain things deserve on your plate. You can adjust the amount of food you eat by adjusting the size of your plate. In fact, a study published in 2017 named “How does plate size affect estimated satiation and intake for individuals in normal‐weight and overweight groups?” demonstrated that using smaller plates causes people to feel fuller and eat less.(1)
And if you want to know what amounts of food you should put on your plate, someone has already done the hard work for you.
If you grew up with the “food pyramid” (like I did) it’s time you know that the USDA has trashed it and replaced it with MyPlate.(2)
While I definitely consider MyPlate an improvement from the food pyramid, there are even better systems out there for filling your plate, especially if your goal is to lose a few extra pounds.
I teach my clients to use plates designed by Precision Nutrition (PN). There are 3 different templates (for different needs and situations) which is one (of many) improvements from the one size fits all solution of MyPlate.
After we discuss MyPlate (and its problems), I will explain why I prefer the PN plate system.
MyPlate, introduced in 2011, is the newest version of the USDA’s eating guidelines. It replaced MyPyramid, which was the 2005 update to the food pyramid which was introduced in 1992. I personally grew up with the food pyramid but for those older than me there was the “food wheel.”(3)
The goals of MyPlate were to incorporate the 2010 Dietary guidelines for America in a new, visually attractive cue. The system is designed not to tell you what to eat but to help you make good choices by giving you guidelines for how much of different food groups you should eat.
While I love the idea of using your plate as a measurement tool for portion control I disagree with how they designed their plate.
There are some really important things left off the plate, and also things that you don’t need at all.
What could be removed
Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.(4)
This doesn’t account for those with a milk allergy, which is the second most common allergy in US children affecting nearly 20% of the population.(5)
Because of these statistics I feel it is irresponsible to include dairy as a necessary food group that everyone needs to eat.
Telling people that they “need” dairy for a healthy balanced diet is a lie. A dangerous one.
While I am not a conspiracy theorist it is hard to believe that the powerful dairy lobby had nothing to do with dairy products getting their own category, instead of being included with all the other sources of protein and carbohydrates (that's right, milk is higher in sugar than it is in protein).
And of course there are also the people who choose not to consume dairy products for religious, chemical (such as added hormones), or ethical reasons.
Grains receive a “big” quarter of the plate, and fruit receives a “small” quarter of the plate.
That makes half the plate calorie-dense carbohydrates (not accounting for people who use milk for dairy, which is also high in carbohydrates).
There is nothing wrong with a high carb diet. But it is not for everyone. If you are very active and have a good glucose tolerance it can be a great fit. But for those who aren’t very active and have poor glucose tolerance (think diabetic or prediabetic) it is a poor choice.
While this is certainly progress from the food pyramid where grains made up the base of the pyramid (6-11 servings a day), it is still not the balance most people need.
What needs to be added
Water is the most vital nutrient to the human body.
But for your body to balance water properly it also needs electrolytes (minerals with an electric charge such as sodium and potassium).
Electrolytes are in food (yes - you can get them without Gatorade). This makes meal times one of the best times to get properly hydrated.
I would recommend drinking water with every meal.
All food is composed of 3 basic macronutrients. They are carbs, protein, and fat.
They are all essential to a balanced diet.(6)
MyPlate simply ignores the fact that fats exist.
While protein sources tend to contain some fats (but only if they are from animal sources), most diets need additional healthy fats.
There is strong evidence that healthy fats protect your heart, improve your body composition, and help alleviate depression.(7)
They are an essential part of everyone's diet.
Precision Nutrition plates
Luckily the nutrition experts at Precision Nutrition have developed better plate designs taking these factors into account.
Full disclosure: I am a Precision Nutrition Certified coach. This means after doing a lot of research on different nutrition systems and courses I decided that theirs was the best and chose to expand my knowledge with their course.
They have designed 3 different plates: the balanced plate, the post-workout plate, and the anytime plate.(8)
The Balanced Plate
If you make all of your meals look like the balanced plate you are eating a very healthy and very balanced diet.
It is the only version you really need.
Note: This info-graphic is from the Plant based diet plate. The Balanced Plate has the exact same ratio of food, but the protein sources are not limited to plants. Additionally the recommendation for vitamin B-12 gum is only necessary for Plant based eaters.
This plate includes starchy carbs, proteins, and healthy fats. It is half veggies and reminds you to drink water (or tea) and gives you nature’s dessert option, fruit.
What if you can’t (or choose not to) follow the exact design?
That's fine, in fact I recommend it. Life without dessert is not a life I want to live.
For this system to work effectively you should try to make at least 80% of your meals look like this.
The other 20% of time have the cake for dessert, or double up on carbs or skip your veggies.
It should be noted that you will do better if you make small deviations (like adding cake or doubling the starchy carbs) instead of full-on “cheat” meals.
While you can still be successful if you do this it is better to get some nutrients instead of making 20% of your meals pizza and ice cream…
The Post-Workout Plate
While you can get great results from just changing your diet and not adding exercise, I recommend that everyone get regular exercise. The reasons why go beyond the scope of this article.
When you do intense exercise, it changes your metabolic response so that you are more glucose tolerant.
What this means in English is that your body has better uses for carbs than turning them into fat. Which means you can eat more carbs! Which is awesome and we should take advantage of it!
Your body also needs more protein to help repair the muscle damage from the intense workout. Which is why the plate is half protein, half fruits and veggies (both sources of carbohydrates), and then a big ol’ serving of starchy carbs on the side. And of course water to help you rehydrate.
You might notice that this meal is missing healthy fats, which was one of my criticisms of MyPlate.
The reason for this is a high fat post-workout meal can slow down the digestion and absorption of the carbs and protein. Because of this we want you to get most of your fat at your other meals.
It should be noted that you don’t need to avoid fat that is naturally occurring as a result of the meal (fish is a great post-workout protein and high in fat). You just don’t need to add more fat to the meal.
Remember this plate is only for post-workouts. So unless you are doing two workouts a day you don’t get to eat like this often.
The Anytime Plate
Carbs are not the enemy.
But there are certainly advantages to a low-carb diet, especially if your goal is to lose body fat.
There are also advantages for certain medical issues. The low-carb “Ketogenic” diet was actually developed in the 1920’s to treat epilepsy.(9) Interestingly the thesis as to why the ketogenic diet would be effective is because on almost zero carbs you get a lot of the benefits of fasting, while still being able to eat.
The application of ketosis to body composition happened later in the 1980’s.(10)
When you remove starchy carbs and fruit and eat the recommended ratio of veggies compared to protein and fat that this meal provides it is virtually impossible to overeat.
If you don’t believe me try and see what happens.
MyPlate instructs you to eat less, avoid oversized portions, and unless you are already undereating this is great advice. Increasing fruits and veggie is also a good idea.
It instructs you to make half of your grains “whole grains” which is certainly better than eating not grains that are not whole, but that many grains is not for everyone.
Unfortunately labeling laws make this advice useless. Companies can put a big “Whole Grain” label on their processed food product if it contains some whole grains.
They also instruct you to switch to fat free or 1% fat milk. We have already covered milk in detail above.
MyPlate instructs you to compare sodium on food labels and choose the “low sodium option” in food such as soup, bread, and frozen meals.
There are better options than low sodium frozen meals.
And at the bottom in small print they finally address water by telling you to drink it instead of sugary drinks. While it probably deserves a more prominent place at least they got it somewhere.
The PN plates all have slightly different instructions depending on the type and purpose of the meal.
They dictate “eating smaller and larger plates based on your body size.” This is how we scale the total amount of food for different people with different needs and/or goals.
Both plates except the post-workout meal instruct you to eat slowly and stop when you are 80% full. This means that you don’t have to clear your plate. Which is something that many people struggle with.
I know your mother told you there were starving kids in Africa (my mother said Belize) and because of them you need to clear your plate. What she didn’t consider is that we already produce more than enough food to feed the entire planet, and feeding the starving people in the world is completely a political problem.
Also food is a biodegradable renewable resource. You don’t waste it by throwing it out, you feed the soil and plants with it (the same is not true for food packaging).
If your concern is that this doesn’t happen when your food is put into a plastic trash bag and taken to the dump, then you should be composting your leftovers.
Composting isn’t wasting: it is feeding our planet.
The plates also tell you to eat most of your carbs and your biggest meal after exercise.
Some of the best advice about all of the plates is to eat mostly whole foods, with minimal processing. And, to choose local or organic when possible.
Whole foods have one ingredient, such as chicken, beans, spinach, etc.
The more ingredients you see in something the more processed it is. When we process things we remove nutrients and chemicals. This is generally not a good thing for your health. But processing makes food (or should I say food-like products) tasty and addictive, which are both good for sales.
MyPlate is a big improvement from the food pyramid and qualifies as a system for eating. But I don’t believe it is the best system for using your plate as a measuring tool.
However, I love the PN concept and I love the PN plates and have used them effectively with many clients on their journey to getting strong, lean, and healthy. Try them to see if they help you to improve your health!
If you have any questions or need advice about your plate, send me an email David@Magenfitness.com.