Few things annoy me more than rules about eating. Rules remind me of restriction, which reminds me of deprivation, which smells an awful lot like dieting. And as every foodist knows, dieting does more harm than good toward your health and weight loss efforts, and saps the fun out of life. Thanks, but no thanks.
Unfortunately, “eat whatever you want” isn’t the best health advice either, especially in 2013 when food-like products are easier to find than real food most of the time. This is a problem I’ve been dealing with for years here at Summer Tomato, and tackled head on in my new book Foodist.
Focusing on real food is a good start. I describe real food as anything that looks like it came from the land, air or sea, and not from a lab or factory. But with so much confusing and seemingly contradictory dieting advice out there, it can be helpful to have more tangible guidelines about what a healthy meal actually looks like.
To help with this I designed the Foodist’s Plate, created roughly in the same format as the USDA’s MyPlate. I think the MyPlate is a huge improvement over the antiquated Food Pyramid of yore, but there are still enough flaws in its design to warrant a do-over.
The Foodist’s Plate differs from MyPlate in several ways. First, I moved fruit off the dinner plate altogether and indicate that approximately half of your plate should be filled with vegetables.
I have nothing against fruit, and think it makes a wonderful snack or dessert, so I placed it to the side. The reason I did this is because research has shown that when you tell people to “eat more fruits and vegetables” they tend to ignore the vegetable part and just eat more fruit. For optimal health, however, vegetables should be the focus and the Foodist’s Plate reflects this. Enjoy fruit whenever you like, but when making dinner emphasize the veggies.
I also specify that the vegetables should be cooked in natural, minimally processed oils. It is completely baffling to me that the USDA spent decades telling us that fats and oils are public enemy No.1 for health, then completely ignore it on their latest recommendations (unless you dig through 20 pages of literature––you all did that, right?). It’s no wonder people are confused about dietary fat.
The latest research shows that while processed oils (e.g. trans fats) are unhealthy, natural oils do not contribute to heart disease, while making food more satisfying and improving the absorption of some nutrients by the body. Cooking with oils improves the nutrition of your food.
Another big difference between the Foodist’s Plate and MyPlate is my take on grains and “protein.” Since protein is a nutrient, and not an actual food, I instead encourage choosing wild fish or pastured (grass-fed) meats, if possible. I emphasize wild, natural meats because the antibiotics, hormones and unsanitary living standards (think E. coli) of industrially produced meats are far more worrisome than animal fats, in terms of health.
For the starchy section of the plate, I reduced the portion size and emphasize beans (or lentils) and intact grains, which I distinguish from the confusing term “whole grains.” Briefly, intact grains still look like grains and include things like rice, oats, quinoa and farro. Because of the FDA’s legal definition of “whole grain,” things like wheat and corn can still be processed into oblivion and still qualify as “whole.” This is why things like Cheerios can still be called “whole grain,” and I call BS.
I removed dairy from the Foodist’s Plate altogether not because I think it is dangerous, but because I consider it optional, like nuts and seeds. I enjoy cheeses, yogurt and other dairy products (though I always choose non-industrial dairy to avoid artificial hormones––my skin does not react well to these at all), but with up to 70% of the globe being lactose intolerant, it’s hard to consider milk and dairy essential to health.
For liquids, water is what you should be drinking most of the time. Coffee and tea (without added sugar) as well as moderate amounts of alcohol may be uniquely healthy and can be enjoyed in reasonable quantities.
To give you a sense of appropriate portions I include a measurement for the Foodist’s Plate of 10 inches. Dinner plates have become enormous, and since a clean plate is a powerful psychological indicator that a meal is over, it can be helpful to use smaller plates if you’re looking for a painless way to cut down on your daily calories without noticing.
Keep in mind that the Foodist’s Plate is intended only to be a helpful guide, not a rigid eating plan. There are thousands of ways to have a healthy meal, even if you leave off entire sections of the plate. There’s no need to freak out about any one meal or ingredient. Similarly, don’t be discouraged even if your average meal falls outside the range of what the Foodist’s Plate suggests. It is intended as an aspirational goal for when everything is going right.
If you do not have regular access to local, organic foods, do the best with what you have. Eating vegetables and fruits from any source (organic, local, or not) is better than not eating them at all. If wild-caught fish or grass-fed meats are unavailable in your area or are too expensive to be a regular part of your diet, that doesn’t condemn you to a lifetime of disease and excess belly fat. Maybe you’ll need to rely a little more on beans and lentils, or have to eat farmed or canned fish every now and then (I did all this and more through college and grad school). You can still eat healthier than the vast majority of Americans and continue to eat the foods you love by simply making an effort to eat more fresh vegetables and fewer processed foods.
Upgrading your healthstyle is about figuring out what works for you, regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in.
For more on how to get healthy and lose weight without dieting check out my book Foodist.