When is comes to nutrition and dieting, we often get very wrapped up in how many calories to eat, what diet to be on, and trying to determine if certain foods are really OK to eat or not. The truth is that the answers to these question differ for everyone, because everyone’s body processes the nutrients put into it differently.
One constant among everyone is that our bodies perform the best when fueled with fresh, whole, unprocessed foods! But even in this case, we can overdo it by eating too much of a good thing. Our bodies can only use a set amount on any macronutrient (fats, carbs, and proteins). When we get more that what our bodies can process at the moment, then it simply converts it to stored energy, or in other words – fat. We can avoid this by ensuring that we eat a balanced diet with proper portion sizes. It should be noted that regardless of what “diet” you’ve chosen for yourself (paleo, vegetarian/vegan, gluten free, whole foods, etc), these basic principles can still be applied.
- Measuring cup, various sizes
- Measuring spoons, various sizes
- Kitchen scale, ounces & pound options
If the thought of measuring out your food is just too much, and let all agree that sometimes kids just don’t let this happen, then your hands and you plate can be wonderful tools too!
The chart to the left shows the basics. These guidelines are good for just any regular person. However, if you’re breastfeeding or participating in an intense exercise program then you’ll need a bit more. In these cases, add an additional half of the amounts suggestions (for example, for grains use 1.5 fists/cups), but make sure you make the adjustment everywhere! Double these amounts (grains = 2 fists/cups) if you’re nursing and exercising. For snacks, you can easily just eat half of these amounts. Basically just get in touch with your body and adjust depending on your needs!
A Balanced Meal
Once you have your portions figured out, then it’s time to put it together in a meal. As I mentioned earlier, regardless of your choice in diets, it’s important that you meals are balanced. This ensures that you are getting all of the nutrients that you need and will help you feel full longer. Your body operates best when it’s fueled with an combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at each meal or snack. Because our body breaks down these nutrients at different speeds, eating them in balance ensures that we have plenty of fuel options for our body.
The image to the left illustrates how we can use our plate in combination with portion sizes to create a balanced meal. I think the part of this image that makes people quake in fear is the amount of suggested veggies. And to be specific, these are our fibrous veggies and not the starchy ones. So, greens (broccoli, salads), reds, purples, oranges (peppers, sweet potatoes), etc. Why is this? Vegetables are an essential part of our diet for a number of reasons. First, they contain insoluble fiber that helps fill us up and cleans our digestive system. So, even if you’re not eating grains or are on a low-carb diet (these foods also contain insoluble fiber) getting plenty of veggies will ensure that you stay full and regular! Also, aim to “eat a rainbow” on these side of the plate. Doing so will help you get the vitamins and minerals you need and can make taking a daily multivitamin unnecessary. Don’t like veggies? Do your best. It’s also a wonderful time to explore and branch out. It’s amazing how different cooking methods (try roasting) and seasonings can really make vegetable taste different than you remember.
Now, look at the rest of the plate and think about your current diet. Can you make this work? Ideally we’d like to see this plate filled with whole, unprocessed foods, but we know that sometimes it just doesn’t happen. How can you adjust your convenience foods fit into this template? For drive thru burgers or sandwiches, maybe is means removing half of the bun and adding salad instead of fries or chips. Chinese take out? Try ordering steamed meat (chicken or seafood) and vegetables with no sauce. Give yourself a generous amount of this main dish and measure out a cup of rice. Or half cup and treat yourself to an egg roll. Eating out? Ask for a to-go container when your food is served. Cut a palm-sized piece of meet to keep on your plate and approximate a fist-size portion of carbs (rice, potato, corn). Add a side salad or side of veggies if needed. Put the excess in your container to have tomorrow. Is this starting to make sense?
So, just a one more thought. Why restrict the carbs and fruit? I love carbs personally and so do our bodies. They are the quickest way for our bodies to get energy, which is why so many gels and sports products are high in sugar and carbs. The reason is that they are broken down quickly into glucose which is used by the body as fuel. However, if there is more glucose in the system than the body needs at a given time, then the excess will be stored as fat and not released until our body is in dire straights and really needs fuel. By limiting our portion of carbs in our meals, we control this cycle of excess. So, unless you’re heading off to run or do a cardio workout for over an hour, then you really don’t need more than this at one given time. We’ll talk about nutrient timing later, but for now, try limiting your fruit, grains, and starchy vegetables. Replace the excess with that rainbow of veggies instead!
Try working with portions this week. Measure out or use the hand estimates with each meal. And use you plate as a guide to how your plate should look. Planning a one-pot meal or casserole? Think of how you can modify it to fit these guidelines. For me, that often means cooking and rice or noodles separately so I can control how much I take. Journal how this process is going for you. How is the transition? What about your appetite? Is this a sustainable system for you? Why or why not. Have fun with this! Food should be an enjoyment and fun, but there’s also a matter of finding that healthy balance for you.