How to Eat Right

Guiding Principles for Eating Well and Feeling Great

By Ewa Futkowska

Dinner | Photo by Jeshoots.com

Dinner | Photo by Jeshoots.com

PART 1 of 3

As a Nutritionist, I often get asked for my opinions on “healthy eating”. What should I be doing more of? What should I be eating less of? What’s the best diet out there? With so much information (and misinformation) floating around the internet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused as to who and what is right.

As frustrating as it can be to the person on the receiving end, my answer to these questions is usually the same: It depends on who you are. After all, every body is a little different. An individuals’ biochemistry, health goals, cultural influences, age, gender, and many more factors play a role in determining what program would work best for that person. These complexities are what make my job so interesting, and why working one-on-one with someone is so beneficial. That being said, there are some simple but powerful dietary principles that would help most folks to improve digestion and thus overall health.

We start here, as we embrace the season of change and thanksgiving. I encourage you to commit to 3 simple principles, delivered to you in a three-part series. This week, we explore principle #1: A balanced plate. 

Perfect Plate | Photo by Brooke Lark

Perfect Plate | Photo by Brooke Lark

PRINCIPLE #1: A Balanced Plate

The first principle is all about creating the right balance and combination of nutrients in your meals. In a standard North American diet, it’s common to plan meals around a meat dish. The question of What are we having for dinner? is often answered with “Chicken”, “Steak” or “Fish”. The rest of the plate’s contents take second stage to these protein rich stars of the show. The supporting role would often be played by potatoes or rice, and the background dancers would be some vegetable like mixed greens or peas. My friends, this system is all backwards. 

Meat | Photo by Markus Spiske

Meat | Photo by Markus Spiske

As a general rule, your dinner plate should look something like this: ¼ Protein, ¼ Grains/Starches, and ½ vegetables. Protein should only represent a quarter of your plate. That means, when plating your meat, poultry, fish or legumes, consider the portion. For example, when eating chicken breasts, many people tend to plate the whole breast. Depending on where you get your poultry from, that usually represents about 8 ounces of chicken. Unless you are in a growing stage (like body-building or pregnancy) you don’t really need more than 5 or 6 oz. You do want to also consider body size, and of course there will be some exceptions, but as a general rule ¼ of your plate should be reserved for your main protein source. 

Next let’s look at grains and starches, which should take up a combined ¼ of your plate. Now, I’ve grouped these together because of North America’s favorite vegetable: the potato. Yes, the potato is technically a vegetable, but it should not be confused as belonging in the ½ veggie section of your plate.  While the potato is rich in nutrients like potassium, vitamins B6 and C, it is also very high in complex carbohydrates which the body does need, but not in the quantities they are usually consumed. The potato belongs with the ¼ of your plate along with grains, in all their glorious varieties. In the typical North American diet, rice tends to be the shining star in the grain family, but don’t forget about his cousins; quinoa, amaranth, barley, millet, buckwheat, bulgur and many others—all of which are high in many minerals and vitamins, especially the B vitamins.

Ancient Grains | Photo by Pixabay

Ancient Grains | Photo by Pixabay

Finally, your veggies—the new rising stars of your plated dinners. At least one half of your entire plate should be made up of a healthy variety of vegetables. Omnivores, I can see your face cringe, but be not afraid. With so many vegetables out there, your options for creativity and expression through food have just grown substantially!  To this rule I would include one important sub-rule (ya it’s a word). In addition to half of your plate being made up of vegetables, at least part of those vegetables should be raw.  Cooked, steamed, baked or sautéed vegetables are still better than no vegetables at all, but they won’t retain nearly the same amount of nutrients that raw can provide. 

Perhaps even more importantly, cooked vegetables lack digestive enzymes. The importance of digestive enzymes warrants its own article but the gist of it is this: The more active enzymes present in your food (such as those found in raw vegetables), the less your body needs to work to break it down. Conversely, eating foods without sufficient digestive enzymes puts added stress on the body, particularly the pancreas, which can affect other functions of the body like blood-sugar balance and immune function. That’s not even mentioning the most obvious issue of indigestion, which leads to poor nutrient absorption and assimilation and comes with its own list of possible complications. The bottom line is this: salad is king.

Salad | Photo by Tortic84

Salad | Photo by Tortic84

Before we wrap-up, there is one more thing to be said about Principle One. You may have noticed there are some food groups and categories we have not touched on. Fruit, for example. Eating a variety of fresh fruits is extremely beneficial to one’s health and I highly encourage it. The reason you won’t see fruits listed on your Balanced Plate is that fruits should ideally be eaten on their own. Combining fruits with other foods like proteins and starches, can interfere with digestion and can cause gas and bloating. There are (like all things) exceptions to this rule (like the combination of protein and citrus fruits for example) but as a general standard, you want to keep these two worlds separate.  Another missing food is dairy. Now, for reasons I won’t get into in this article, I’m not a big fan of dairy. But if cheese is your jam, I would group it in the protein ¼ of your plate. You’ll also see no mention of nuts and seeds. Much like fruits, I highly encourage the consumption of both, but I wouldn’t worry too much about where they fall on the spectrum. 

Toast with the most | Photo by Foodie Factor

Toast with the most | Photo by Foodie Factor

When you open your fridge tonight and ponder what to prepare for dinner, I hope you’ll remember this guiding principle and create something magnificent, delicious and well balanced. 

Stay tuned for principle #2.