How to Create a Healthy, Balanced Plate

National Nutrition Month: A Balanced Plate

March is National Nutrition Month: A time to focus on the importance of learning to make healthy food choices and developing healthy eating habits. Part of learning to eat healthfully is learning how to balance what you eat and how to make sure you're getting enough of the recommended foods groups each day.

Whether you're about to sit down to breakfast, lunch or dinner, here's what (and how much) to put on your plate to help you reach your nutritional goals.

Half the Plate: Vegetables and Fruit

According to the USDA's ChooseMyPlate guidelines, about 50% of a balanced plate will consist of fruits and vegetables. You have a lot of leeway when choosing the vegetables that go on your plate. They can be cooked or raw, frozen, canned or fresh, and served in pretty much any form: mashed, chopped or whole. ChooseMyPlate also lets you swap in 100% vegetable or fruit juice for a whole vegetable or fruit.

Although you have some flexibility when picking the vegetables and fruits that go on your plate, keep in mind that some choices are more nutrient-rich than others. Dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale are chockful of vitamins and minerals, for example. Colorful vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, blueberries, sweet potatoes, and carrots, are also excellent sources of certain minerals and vitamins.

There are some types of vegetables that you might want to go easy on when you're focusing on balanced nutrition. Although starchy white potatoes are technically vegetables, they tend to raise blood sugar levels and aren't always the best pick. Focus on filling your plate with other types of vegetables for better health results.

One-Quarter of the Plate: Whole Grains

Fill about 25%, or one-quarter, of your plate with whole grains for better health and more balanced nutrition. Whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat, whole barley, and corn. Although quinoa is technically a seed, it falls into the whole grain category, too.

Compared to refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, whole grains take a lot longer for the body to digest and process. When you eat whole grains, you tend to feel fuller, longer, which means you're less likely to snack between meals. Whole grains also offer some health benefits, such as helping to lower cholesterol levels, helping to reduce constipation and lowering the risk of blood sugar spikes.

One-Quarter of the Plate: Lean Protein

The remaining quarter of your plate can be filled with protein, such as chicken, fish, eggs and other types of meat. If you're vegan or vegetarian, your protein can come from soy products such as tofu, lentils, and other types of beans.

Just as some vegetables are better than others and some types of grains are better than others, some forms of protein are better for your overall health than others. Lean protein sources are usually preferable to red meat and processed meats, which tend to be high in saturated fats. Processed meats are also often high in sodium and other additives.

Try to eat lean protein, such as fish, beans, and chicken, more frequently than you do other types of protein, such as red meat or cheese. Since fish and other types of seafood contain nutrients and Omega-3 fatty acids that can be difficult to find elsewhere, ChooseMyPlate recommends making fish or seafood the star of the protein section of your plate at least twice a week.

On the Side

Along with filling your plate, there are some "side" items it's a good idea to include with each meal. One of those side items is a glass of water, which helps to improve hydration. If you find plain water too boring, try drinking seltzer or sparkling water. If possible, avoid sugary beverages such as soda or juices that contain added sugar.

Other side items can help to improve the flavor of your food while also enhancing its nutritional value. Lemon or lime slices on the side can help to brighten up steamed vegetables or fish, for example. Healthy oils, such as olive oil, can be an excellent source of beneficial fats and can also help your body better absorb the nutrients from certain vegetables. You can dress salad greens with oil or dip whole-grain bread into a small amount of oil, instead of using butter.

A balanced diet and plate will help you reach your nutritional goals, whether you're trying to lose weight or simply eat more healthfully. Paying attention to what goes on your plate also gives you an excuse to try new foods and to experiment with new-to-you vegetables.

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