the Healthy Eating Pyramid and Plate

When we start building up a picture of what and why we are eating the things we do, it is important to know what we are aiming to change it to.

So I want to introduce you to the Healthy Eating Pyramid and Healthy Eating Plate. Both of these were developed by the very smart people at Harvard University. They are very good but simple ways of seeing what healthy eating actually is.

So here we go...

The Healthy Eating Pyramid is a guide to what food/drink we should have throughout a week. It is not a weight loss diet, or bulking up diet, or one that you “go on” for a few weeks before your holidays.

Instead, it is a healthy, balanced lifelong way of eating/drinking, suitable for the vast majority of the population.

Use the shape of the pyramid as a guide to what you should eat, and how much, over a week. Things at the bottom of the Pyramid should be consumed in much higher quantities and frequencies than those at the top of the Pyramid.

For most people, simply eating/drinking things in these proportions will result in a healthy bodyweight.

But for now, let’s go through the different layers so you can understand.

Daily Exercise and Weight Control

As the title suggests, this should be carried out EVERY day. Exercise can be classed as structured fitness classes or sports training sessions, or physical activities throughout the day. These include:

  • Manual labour
  • Physical daily chores
  • Walking the dog
  • Playing with the kids
  • Walking/cycling to and from work/shops
  • Simply avoiding the easy option for each situation.

Weight control means being aware of the impact that our food/drink have on our health, fitness and weight.

In other words, eating too much bad food makes us fat and unhealthy.

Vegetables and Fruit

We should all aim to consume a bright, multicoloured mixture of veg EVERY meal. They should certainly be the bulk of your main daily meal. This does not mean a couple of slices of tomato and cucumber pushed around the side of your plate. Everyone, yes, everyone can benefit from getting more fruit and veg inside of them. If you currently think you have enough fruit and veg, you can benefit from having even more!

Don’t think of your meal as “something with vegetables”, instead think of it as “vegetables with something”. This is a way of prioritising fruit and veg in your mind.

Aim to have some fruit EVERY day also. You could have them as snacks between meals to keep hunger at bay. Try having a mixture of fruit for your pudding instead of cake or chocolate.

Examples of fruit include bananas, watermelons, strawberries, mango, oranges, apples, pineapple, grapes, cherries, kiwi.

Examples of veg include carrots, cabbage, lettuce, cauliflower, onions, courgette, sweet potato, celery, spinach.

Healthy fats and oils

"Fats" are not bad for you, and you should not avoid eating "fats". Eating "low fat chocolate" or "low fat ice cream" is not a healthy option to help you lose weight either. But some fats are better than others.

Unsaturated fats – These are the “good” fats.

These usually come from plant or fish sources and are liquid at room temperature. Examples include olive oil, vegetable oil, nut/seed oil and oily fish. Whenever possible, choose unsaturated fats over other kinds, like...

Saturated fats – These are the “bad” fats.

These come from animal sources and are usually solid at room temperature. Examples include meat products like sausages/pies, cakes and biscuits and dairy products, such as butter and cheese. Whenever possible, cut down on these saturated fats.

Trans fats - These are the “very bad” fats and are usually man-made.

They are usually hidden away in the small print of many processed foods. Try to eliminate these trans-fats.

Whole Grains

These are literally the whole of the grain of corn/wheat etc. By including the whole of the grain, you get all the important vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fibre is important because not only does it essentially contain no usable calories, but it causes people to eat less and feel fuller for longer.

Whenever possible, choose whole grain, or whole wheat or whole meal foods over their much more processed and refined "white" versions.

Examples include wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, oats.

Nuts, seeds, beans and tofu

These are natural foods rich in fibre, protein and healthy fats. They also contain a large mixture of vitamins and minerals essential to a healthy body. They can be added to meals to add texture and taste, or eaten as snacks between meals. Try to incorporate a good mixture of them, as they will have different tastes and nutritional strengths and weaknesses.

Examples include brazil nuts, cashew nuts, chestnut, walnut, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, fava beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils.

Fish, poultry and eggs

Excellent, healthy sources of top quality protein for a strong and injury resistant body. Always choose the more "natural" form of the food. For example:

  • Choose a fish fresh from the market, not a fish finger.
  • Choose a free range chicken straight from the butchers, not chicken McNuggets.
  • Choose free range boiled eggs, not the eggs included when you bake a cake.

Dairy

Good, natural, healthy foods with plenty of vitamins and minerals. But they do tend to be high in calories and high in saturated (bad) fats. So go easy on them and limit your intake.

Examples include semi skimmed milk, cheeses, natural yogurts.

Others

These should be treated as "treats" and as such consumed sparingly. Only have small amounts and don't have them often (only about once a week).

Red meat and butter - red meat tends to come from 4 legged mammals such as pigs, cows and sheep. These are high in saturated (bad) fats. Examples include burgers, sausages, mincemeat.

Refined grains - the opposite of whole grains. These have been heavily ground, purified and bleached. This process removes most of the fibre, vitamins, minerals and goodness, leaving nothing but empty calories. Examples include white bread, white pasta, white rice.

Potato products - Whilst there is nothing wrong with a simple potato, it is what we do to them that can make them a less than healthy choice. eg - making them into crisps/chips, or smothering them with butter etc.

Sugary drinks, sweets and chocolate - These have no nutritional value at all. They do not fill you up, but they just pile on the calories and add to tooth decay.

Salt

We only need very small amounts of salt to live and we easily get enough from the foods we eat. And most man made processed foods have large amounts of salt added at the factory, so we certainly don't need to add any more at the dinner table.

While the healthy eating pyramid should represent what food/drink to have over the course of a week, the Healthy Eating Plate shows you what your ideal meal should look like every day.

Fruit and veg

As you can see from the plate, at least half of every meal should be fruit and veg. Did you have fruit and veg in every meal yesterday? And yes, I'm including breakfast in that question... How can you improve both quality and quantity next time?

See the section on fruit and veg above for more info.

Whole grains

About a quarter of your plate should be taken up by whole grains. Did you chose whole grains over refined grains in your last meal? How can you improve the quality of your grains next time?

See the section on whole grains above for more info.

Healthy protein

By healthy protein, we mean protein with low levels of saturated (animal derived) fat. As a very rough and ready but memorable guide, when it comes to meat protein, the fewer legs the animal had, the healthier the fat is. So in order of preference, first choose fish and seafood (no legs), then choose poultry (2 legs) and finally lamb, beef, pork etc (4 legs).

Water

Simple water is the best drink for us. Certainly much much better than sugary drinks, pops and energy drinks. How far removed from simple water is your drink of choice throughout the day?

Healthy oils

See the section on healthy fats and oils above.

And if you want a kids friendly version, then click here.

Seriously, these things are awesome and we can all learn from them...

Homework.

Download, print or save the Healthy Eating Pyramid and Plate. Then I want you to take a look at your main, most common meals in your food diary and see how they compare to the Pyramid and Plate.

  • Do the proportions look similar?
  • Are there any groups that are consistently over or under represented?
  • Are there 1 or 2 simple, realistic changes you can make to make your meals look more like the Pyramid and Plate?

You can also use these guides to help you work out which Healthy Eating Habits you should focus on improving (more on this soon...)

You can email me your thoughts and findings and we can discuss your plans to improve on them.

The next step...

From the previous pages, hopefully you should now have an idea of what, how and why you are eating as you currently do. The next few pages are all about making one small improvement at a time...