Is Your Plate out of Shape?
By Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN
Healthy eating—especially when you cut back on calories in an effort to lose weight—can be a challenge. With fewer calories to divvy up during breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack times, it’s that much harder to know what to choose to stay healthy and energized at the same time.
According to the recent National Eating Trends® survey by the NPD group, Americans come close to following current USDA on only seven days a year. But what about the other 358 days?
In honor of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ National Nutrition Month, here are three food groups you may fall short on, and tips to fill those gaps this month and beyond.
Green When it Comes to Greens
Vegetables are low in fat and pack in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that may protect against some forms of cancer. They’re also very high in water content that keeps you hydrated. Despite their many virtues, vegetables—especially dark green and orange vegetables and legumes (beans and peas)—are underconsumed. “If you ask people to add up how many servings of vegetables they get in a day, they’re usually shocked at how little they actually consume,” says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of the upcoming book The Plant-Powered Diet. Americans currently consume about 1.6 cups of all vegetables (including starchy ones like corn and potatoes), but most need 2 to 2.5 cups per day (for a 1,600 to 2,00 calorie meal pattern) according to current dietary guidelines.
So how can you go green (and red, yellow, and orange too) when you eat? Palmer suggests having at least one cup of vegetables at lunch and dinner—and not just a lettuce leaf or tomato slice on your sandwich. “Whether you eat on the go or at home, try to have a colorful side salad, some grilled or steamed veggies, or a small cup of vegetable or bean soup with lunch and dinner everyday,” she suggests.
What Happened to an Apple a Day?
Like vegetables, fruit packs in fiber and water, is relatively low in calories, and we don’t consume nearly enough of them. Although current dietary guidelines call for 1.5 to 2.0 cups of fruit daily (for a 1,600 to 2,000 calorie meal pattern), Americans consume only 0.9 cups daily.
Some limit fruit because of its sugar content. But fruit is not candy; in fact, it packs in a bevy of healthful vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that protect body cells to optimize health and help prevent chronic diseases. Whatever your excuse for not consuming more, you can incorporate more fruit by using some of the following strategies:
- Buy only enough fresh fruit to last one to three days, and plan when you’ll have it. If you buy more, freeze some for future use. (Frozen grapes and bananas taste particularly good.)
- Unsweetened applesauce, canned or frozen fruit, and dried fruit made without added sugar are nutritious snack options (or can compliment oatmeal, cold whole grain cereal, or unsweetened yogurt).
- 100 percent fruit juice (1/2 cup to 1 cup a day) can help you meet your daily fruit quota (although it’s not as filling or as fiber-rich as fresh fruit).
- Add fresh or frozen fruit to make an on-the-go smoothie, or add a few slices of peeled grapefruit or orange sections, mango or peach to spruce up plain or sparkling water.
Going against grains
Carbohydrate-rich foods—especially white bread, pasta, and crackers—are on many hit lists of foods to avoid. While some forego carbohydrate-rich foods because they’re allergic to wheat or have gluten sensitivity, others may do so because they think they should avoid them. "So many of my patients have “carb-phobia” and think that carbohydrate-rich foods make you gain weight or are bad for you," says Keri Gans, MS, RD, author of The Small Change Diet.
But grains—especially fiber-rich whole grains—provide your body and brain with glucose, the main fuel needed for energy, as well as B vitamins and antioxidants that can protect health. Most Americans consume less than a 1 ounce-equivalent of whole grains each day instead of 3 or more as recommended in current dietary guidelines (based on a 1,600 to 2,000 calorie meal pattern).
To deliciously increase your intake of whole grains:
- Choose quick-cooking oats or instant oatmeal (without added sugar), whole grain, high fiber cereal (preferably with little added sugar), and whole wheat pita, bread, or English muffins, or whole grain waffles for breakfast. Using unsweetened applesauce or some natural peanut butter to top a whole grain waffle or toasted whole grain bread, or to mix into oatmeal adds lots of flavor.
- At lunch and dinner, opt for whole grain rice (brown or wild) combined with lightly sautéed vegetables and some protein (like skinless chicken breast or lean beef).
- Gans recommends mixing half of your regular pasta with whole wheat pasta and to try different shapes and brands until you find one or two that you like. Add some tomato sauce, lightly sautéed vegetables, and mozzarella and/or parmesan cheese for extra flavor and texture.
- Have popcorn (air-popped with a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese, or made with a small amount of canola oil) or a crunchy whole grain, high fiber cereal mixed with dry fruit and some nuts for a mid-day snack.
How closely do you follow current USDA guidelines?
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian and award-winning author of "Nutrition At Your Fingertips," "Feed Your Family Right!," and "So What Can I Eat?!." She is also a past national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com. Sign up for the free weekly ZIED GUIDE™ newsletter for nutrition tips and news you can use (go to right side of home page at elisazied.com). Follow Elisa on Twitter/elisazied and on Facebook.