Remember the food pyramid poster that used to hang in your school cafeteria? It’s been updated recently—in a big way—and it’s worth giving some attention to, much more than you did when you were a kid.
First of all, it’s not a pyramid at all—it’s your plate. Coined “MyPlate,” the graphic icon illustrates the USDA’s guidelines for healthy eating using the familiar image of a place setting.
Why the change? “The icon is much more relatable and will allow people to use it more in their daily lives,” says Christina Munsell, RD, Research Assistant at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “It shows recommendations in a per-meal setting, versus the full-day approach of the pyramid.”
The simplified icon isn’t intended to deliver every healthy-eating message a consumer needs to know, but instead to remind Americans to eat a balanced meal. It’s especially important for young women, who are often adept at calorie-counting, but who also need to focus on the benefits of what they eat. “This is the time you’re setting yourself up for long-term health,” says Marci Harnischfeger, MS RD, Head Dietitian for Shopwell. “Eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods is really important in your twenties.”
So we dug into the new MyPlate guidelines and advice to bring you everything a young woman needs to know.
The MyPlate icon illustrates the ideal meal combination: fruits and veggies on half of your plate, grains and protein on the other, plus one serving of dairy. Sounds simple, yes, but the average meal is actually way off. “The typical American plate is probably two-thirds grains and protein,” says Munsell.
And the old pyramid, with six to 11 recommended servings of grains, didn’t necessarily help matters. It was “very heavy with carbohydrates and grains. That was a huge part of what people were eating, and in their least healthy form,” Munsell explains. “So MyPlate wanted to change [that] and put the emphasis on the other food groups.”
Fruits & Vegetables
The now-much-higher recommended amount of produce stems from typical American eating habits: Munsell says that “almost everyone is deficient” in their intake of fruits and vegetables, which provide key vitamins and nutrients and are linked to a reduced risk of chronic disease.
All produce is great, but it’s best to eat many different types. “Eating fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of colors ensures you get all of the nutrients you need,” says Harnischfeger. Munsell recommends darkly colored picks—like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, or kale—which pack the most nutrient-dense punch. Canned and frozen goods are OK too, plus they may be less expensive. Just choose fruit canned in 100% juice and vegetables marked as low-sodium.
Not a salad lover? Up your intake by adding fruits and veggies to meals you already prepare: bell peppers and spinach to pasta sauce, bananas, blueberries, or pears to muffin recipes. At breakfast, top cereal with bananas, add chopped tomatoes and mushrooms to eggs, or drink 100% orange or grapefruit juice. For dinner, we love The World’s Best Vegetable Lasagna recipe from Green Kitchen Stories.
Many women limit their dairy intake to reduce calories, but this isn’t the place to cut back: the guidelines recommend women under 30 consume three cups per day, but you can still reduce calories by switching to low-fat or non-fat options.
It’s easy to get dairy in your cereal or yogurt at breakfast, but add some into your afternoon mix by drinking a latte instead of black coffee (Starbucks run? Twist my arm). Or, substitute low-fat dairy in recipes: use plain yogurt instead of sour cream, or try ricotta cheese as a substitute for cream cheese.
If you’re lactose intolerant, try lactose-free milk or soymilk (but check the label to make sure it has about 300 mg of calcium).
The new guidelines suggest making whole grains at least half of your grain intake. (The difference: whole grains contain the entire grain kernel—the bran, germ, and endosperm—refined grains only have the latter.) There are lots of imposters out there, and the color of a food doesn’t necessarily tell you anything: “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” and “100% wheat” may not actually contain any whole grain. So look for the words “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat,” and aim for a fiber content of at least 10 percent per serving.
The easiest switch to make: swap your bread, rice, and pasta for the whole-grain variety. Or, substitute half the flour in recipes for pancakes, waffles, muffins, or breads with whole-grain products such as buckwheat, millet, or oat flour.
The rule of thumb is to fill a quarter of your plate with protein, but this is probably a lot less per day than you think it is. A daily intake of 5 ½ “ounce equivalents” (1 ounce of meat, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 egg, or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds) is recommended.
Lean meats—poultry, fish, or lean pork and beef—are great, but the key, again, is variety, and eating fish at least twice per week is advised. Beans, low in saturated fat and high in fiber, are another great source of protein. Also, one egg a day, on average, doesn’t increase risk for heart disease, so make eggs part of your weekly choices. (And have as many egg whites as you want.)
Oils, Fats, and Sugars
The MyPlate icon doesn’t show a place for fats, oils, and sugars, but that doesn’t mean they’re totally banned—nor can you eat them in unlimited quantities. “To have put them on the plate would have made it seem like they belong in the diet, but people are actually probably consuming fats and oils in combination with the other food groups anyway,” says Munsell. “It may have complicated the picture and overemphasized the need for oils when people are already consuming an excess of what they need.”
So limit your use, and stick to liquid, plant-based oils instead of butter or animal fats. A good rule of thumb for women under 30 on a 2,000 calorie diet: sugary treats and other “empty calories” should total no more than 260 calories per day.
Foods high in sodium should also be swapped with healthier options: cured meats with grilled turkey, prepared foods with homemade. At home, skip salt when cooking, and season instead with spices, herbs, garlic, or lemon juice (salt-free spice rubs, either purchased or homemade, add tons of flavor to meat).
In addition, up your potassium level, which can also help lower blood pressure. Potatoes, beet greens, tomato juice and sauce, sweet potatoes, beans, and bananas are all good sources, as are yogurt, clams, halibut, orange juice, and milk.
Most importantly, MyPlate emphasizes taking things one step at a time. So don’t go overboard by trying to make a bunch of significant changes all at once. “It’s much more effective when people make small changes over time,” says Harnischfeger. “For example, first try filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and when you’ve done that, then incorporate some whole grain foods. Developing a healthy diet is all about a step-by-step approach.”