Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Eating healthy is extremely important at every stage of life, especially since food is health. A balanced diet can help boost your health now and prevent chronic diet-related diseases down the road. Take a moment to reflect on your current diet and eating habits, and note a couple ways you might be able to switch to choices that are rich in nutrients.
To help you plan your meals and ensure you’re receiving enough nutrients when you eat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion released MyPlate, the current nutrition guide that helps you start making small changes in what food makes up your plate.
The MyPlate graphic shows you the different food groups and the recommended portions of each food group. Half your plate should be fruits and vegetables, with whole grains and varying protein foods making up the other half. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products and limit the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar you are consuming. Let’s dive into some suggestions and simple tips for each food group.
The fruit group consists of any fruit or 100% fruit juice, but focus on whole fruits, rather than 100% fruit juice, for at least half of your fruit intake. Start your day with fruit at breakfast by adding bananas to your pancakes or your favorite seasonal fruit, such as berries, to your yogurt, granola, or cereal. You can also keep ready-to-eat fruits in your refrigerator or canned peaches and canned pears in your pantry for when you want to grab a quick snack.
Fruits don’t contain any cholesterol and are naturally low in fat, sodium, and calories, while being rich in essential nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fiber. A diet rich in potassium — which can include bananas, cantaloupe, jackfruit, kiwi, guava, and dried peaches, and apricots — can help you maintain healthy blood pressure. The dietary fiber found in whole or cut-up fruits can reduce blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, and help maintain proper bowel function. Fruits, especially citrus fruits like oranges, are a great source of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron more easily, heal cuts and wounds, grow and repair body tissues, and keep your teeth and gums healthy.
Vary your vegetables and make sure you’re consuming veggies from each of the five subgroups: dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables.
Dark-green vegetables include broccoli, spinach, kale, collard greens, arugula, leafy lettuce, and romaine.
The beans, peas, and lentils subgroup is made of different types of beans, such as lima, black, kidney, or garbanzo beans, split or black-eyed peas, and red, brown, and green lentils.
Corn, plantains, and white potatoes make up the starchy vegetable subgroup.
Finally, the other vegetables group includes various veggies such as cauliflower, avocado, cabbage, bean sprouts, celery, cucumbers, mushrooms, okra, and onions.
You can easily incorporate all these types of vegetables into your meals by adding fresh or frozen veggies to your sandwiches, salads, soup, or stir fry. Next time you’re looking for a snack, opt for raw vegetables instead of chips or cookies. Eating vegetables as part of a healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Vegetables provide vital nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and potassium, that your body needs to maintain good health. Vitamin A is key in protecting your body from infections and helps keep your skin and eyes healthy.
The grain group consists of food made from wheat, rice, oats, barley, cornmeal, or other cereal grain, such as bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, tortillas, oatmeal, and popcorn. There are two types of grains: whole grains and refined grains. Half of your grains should be whole grains, which contain the entire grain kernel. Examples of whole grain products include brown rice, whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, and bulgur. Refined grains have been milled, giving them a longer shelf life but removing many vitamins and nutrients in the process. Refined grain foods include white rice, white flour, and white bread. If you are eating refined grain products, make sure that your choice is enriched, which means that certain B vitamins and iron are added back to the product after processing. However, dietary fiber cannot be added back to enriched grains.
Whole grains are important sources of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, several B vitamins, and minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium. B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) help your body’s metabolism by releasing energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Enriched refined grains often still have rich amounts of B vitamins. A healthy nervous system can be attributed to plentiful B vitamins, while selenium contributes to a healthy immune system. Whole grains offer magnesium and selenium, which are minerals used in building bones and protecting cells from oxidation. Consider choosing whole-grain options over refined grains when possible, since refined grains lack fiber that support healthy digestion. For example, use whole-grain bread or tortillas when making sandwiches or burritos. Try finding whole-grain substitutes for your favorite cereal, crackers, or pita — you may find a healthier alternative that tastes just as good!
Proteins act as the building blocks for bones, muscles, skin, and blood. When you vary your protein foods, you increase your intake of important nutrients such as vitamin D, dietary fiber, and unsaturated fats. Foods that make up the protein food group include meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, eggs, nuts, and soy products. While beans, peas, and lentils are part of the vegetable group, they could also be considered part of the protein food group since they are excellent sources of plant proteins. You can choose whether you count beans, peas, and lentils as vegetables or protein depending on your overall eating pattern. For example, vegetarians can count beans, peas, and lentils as their protein intake.
In order to get more nutrients in your body, be sure to select a wide variety of protein foods. Meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat, such as skinless chicken breasts or 93% lean ground beef. You can roast lean types of pork tenderloin or loin chops and add them to your salads or sandwiches. Limit the amount of meat you consume that are high in saturated fats, such as regular bacon, fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, and regular (75% to 85% lean) ground beef. Have fish or seafood twice a week, while selecting seafood options that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids and lower in methylmercury. You can make fish tacos with salmon or add canned tuna or anchovies to a salad.
Whether you are vegetarian or simply want to incorporate more meatless meals into your daily life, you can still get enough protein in your diet by selecting a varied and adequate amount of vegetarian protein options. Meatless meals can be just as tasty and cheaper to make than meals with meat or seafood. Budget-friendly vegetarian protein options include soy products such as tofu or tempeh, which can be paired with rice, added to vegetable mixes, or used in burritos. You can make a black-bean burger or bean-based vegetarian chili. Eggs and nuts are also great protein choices.
About 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough dairy, so be mindful about increasing intake of fat-free or low-fat dairy. The dairy group is made up of milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt (including fortified soy yogurt), and cheese. Low-fat and fat-free milk products provide very little saturated fat, so move towards those options when possible. Choose unsweetened, low-fat or fat-free milk next time you’re looking for a beverage. Add low-fat or fat-free dairy to your smoothies, oatmeal, and scrambled eggs.
Dairy food products are the main source of calcium in American diets. Dairy foods also provide other important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin D, potassium, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. The nutrients in dairy are important at every stage of life. Calcium and vitamin D help build, improve, and maintain bone health in children and adolescents when bones are being built. These nutrients promote bone health as you get older and help prevent the onset of osteoporosis in adults.
If you cannot or choose not to consume dairy products, there are dairy alternatives such as fortified soy milk and yogurt. While these products don’t contain dairy, they have similar nutritional value and often have vitamin A, vitamin D, and calcium added. There are also foods that are not considered part of the dairy group but are a good source of calcium, such as calcium-fortified juices and calcium-fortified plant-based milk, canned fish, tahini, tofu made from calcium sulfate, and some leafy greens.
While it’s important to pay attention to the food products and portions on your plate, you should also be mindful of what foods and beverages your plate should limit or avoid altogether. Choose foods and beverages that have less added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. When you’re choosing packaged foods, select products with less or no added sugars. For example, you can add your own fruit to plain yogurt. Try to limit the amount of sugary beverages you consume. Choose plain or sparkling water over soda, lemonade, fruit drinks, or sports drinks. Foods high in unsaturated fats are healthier than foods with high saturated fats. Nuts, seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are healthy alternatives. Be sure to use canola oil or olive oil when cooking. Finally, choose foods with less sodium, which you can do by checking the Nutrition Facts label and selecting foods with a lower percent (%) Daily Value (DV) for sodium. This is especially important if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease. When you’re cooking at home, you can control how much sodium you put in your meals. Add flavor by using herbs and spices instead of salt or seasonings high in sodium.
Eating healthy, balanced, and nutritious meals using MyPlate is just one part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you’re also staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and living an active lifestyle by exercising regularly. For more MyPlate tools (including a personalized MyPlate plan), resources, and recipes, visit USDA’s website to start making every bite count.