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The New American Plate

A Simple Rule of Thumb to Combat Obesity and Be Healthy

by Sylvie Greil

If you’re like us you listen half-heartedly to the conflicting reports on what constitutes a healthy diet. We’ve barely digested the no-carb, low-carb craze. We followed, with curiosity, the developments on the raw food and macrobiotic front, and we witnessed and partook in the low-fat/non-fat wave of the early '90s. We’ve spun around the food pyramid often enough to know that diets don't work.

So in our efforts not to diet, there are days when "being good" means eating for health, and there are those when breakfast is a bagel and latte, lunch a sandwich and dinner a slice of pizza. Where’s the balance? And what about the average American consumer? According to the latest numbers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight with more than one-third obese with special health risks. More alarmingly, obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome figures are on the rise for children and adolescents. Every day, we consume 251 calories more than we did 20 years ago. That's an increase from 1,996 to 2,247 over the last 20 years—or an extra 26 pounds annually. We certainly don’t follow our "five a day." We are a nation that is obese, tired, anxious and depressed. But how do you get a society to change its eating habits?

In our country's efforts to combat obesity, we are finally receiving some help on the legislative front and from big corporations. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering improving the nutritional quality of school lunches by banning the sale of junk, sodas and sugary snacks in favor of milk, fresh fruits and vegetable. Elsewhere, grass roots organizations like happycow.net and meatout.org have been receiving press. Happy Cow is a worldwide vegetarian guide with a searchable database of vegetarian restaurants. Meatout is an international observance trying to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet, and the availability and selection of meat and dairy alternatives in the mainstream consumer market.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has published a "simple rule of thumb to help an increasingly confused public implement the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005.”

"We’ve found that people tend to think about their diet in terms of meals," said Karen Collins, RD, AICR Nutrition Advisor. "We tell them: Start by taking a good look at your plate."

Every veggie you add to your meals literally adds years to your life. And, every time you add a plant food that makes a rare appearance in your refrigerator, say bok choy, fennel or mung beans versus the usual carrots, peas and broccoli, your body absorbs the special nutrients they have to offer and you are immediately benefiting from them. And finally, think of meat as a side dish. Can we follow these simple rules?

These "new guidelines are the first to recognize the role of healthy diet in reducing risk of some cancers." But how do you keep from feeling overwhelmed by their many specific goals and their highly specific, quantified recommendations?

"It doesn’t have to be so daunting," said Collins. "Simply make sure to fill at least 2/3 of the plate with a variety of plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, and leave only the remaining room—1/3 of the plate or less—for animal protein. That’s a clear, direct and effective way to eat in accordance with the 2005 Guidelines at every meal," according to Collins.

By designing meals with this easy-to-remember advice in mind, people can lower their risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke and other diseases. And when it comes to healthy, gradual and safe weight loss "adopting the 2/3-to-1/3 proportions effectively re-shapes meals so they are higher in fiber and lower in fat and calories than the traditional American meal," according to the AICR.

10 Pragmatic Guidelines:

1. Two thirds of your plate: Plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans
2. One third of your plate: Fish, poultry, meat or lowfat dairy
3. Include fruits or vegetables at every meal
4. Think of meat as a side dish
5. Eat smaller portions
6. Every little change counts: Just add another veggie to tonight's dinner!
7. Every new grain, fruit or bean you add provides disease-fighting power
8. Keep physically active
9. Develop a real-world sense of what's a serving size
10. Think about how many calories you need (less if you sit at a desk all day)

Simply add a second kind of vegetable to tonight’s dinner, or make what they call a "one-pot meal like a stew or casserole" with veggies, whole grains, beans and less meat. You need not worry about ketosis or buy a food dehydrator. You don’t have to count calories or net carbs. Eating can become pleasurable again, doubly so because it’s for your health. Plant foods are naturally low in calories and fill you up quickly. Also, they have a lower energy density, which is good. Foods with a extremely high energy density in comparison to their weight (e.g. a Big Mac) confuse the brain’s appetite control system—a quick road to obesity. Vegetables and fruits have a very low energy density and are water-heavy food. If anything, you should be looking for food with high nutritional density! Tempeh, a fermented soy product, for instance, is one of the most nutritionally dense foods around.

Read our review of
The New American Plate Cookbook

Really, all it takes is a sensible approach to eating, and despite all of the fad movements of the last three decades one thing has remained constant: the power of plant food.

For more information, including a backgrounder entitled "Plant Foods and Weight Management: The Science Behind Energy Density," visit www.aicr.org. Also find 200 recipes in The New American Plate Cookbook.

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