There is no one-size-fits-all healthy plate but most people will benefit from the tips provided here. Others may need more strict and individualized approach to address their health issues such as with allergy, intestinal dysbiosis, diabetes, autoimmune disease, nutritional deficiencies, or food intolerance. Generally speaking, if you are eating health promoting foods, you follow a healthy life style - then don’t overanalyze or get obsessed in what you’re eating and just enjoy your real food. After all, there’s more to life than food! But now let’s focus on food.
I want to help you to compose health promoting meals. No dieting and calories counting as long as you chose the best quality of health-promoting real foods. The quality is more important than the quantity. You want to have foods on your plate that were alive because they promote life and health, on the contrary factory and processed foods promote disease. Follow the mother nature principles and you are on the safe side.
What should be on your plate?
Real Food. Mostly plants. Not too much.
I based it on the Michael Pollan’s quote stating “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” It’s the essence and your primary goal. I have made 6 rules to make it more precise and helpful for you so you can start creating your healthy plates. This is how proportions of different food groups should look like on a healthy plate, according to me.
6 keys rules to compose healthy plates (for breakfast, lunch and dinner)
#1 Have only real foods on your plate and resist processed foods – real foods contain information (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, water) that our bodies utilize to run and optimize countless number of processes. A handful of candies can’t be compared with a handful of wild blackberries, the first one has no nutritional value and undermines our health whereas the second one is laden with nutrients and promotes our health. Highly processed foods disrupt our biology, the flow of information and are devastating to our health. They are not made to promote our health but to promote addiction. In nowadays world reading labels is essential. Remember that foods that are the best for us come as mother nature designed them: naked and not packed, labeled and processed.
To give you a feeling of do’s and don’ts, read some of Michael Pollan’s quotes:
- “Don't eat anything incapable of rotting”, “Eat only foods that will eventually rot”.
- “Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.”
- “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.”
- “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry”
- “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce”
I could not agree more.
#2 Have lots of non-starchy vegetables on your plate – vegetables should be the largest portion on your plate, it truly can be a game changer for you and your gut microbes! Have a variety of colors from various vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, stalks and stems). Vegetables are your main source of dietary fiber (complex carbohydrates), various phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins. You don’t need to have a plenty of various vegetables with every single meal but strive to have at least 1-4 different vegetables.
#3 Have adequate quality protein on your plate – think of pastured meat, eggs, poultry, wild fish or nuts and seeds, legumes, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms. For some plant protein sources you may need to have a relatively more protein volume to get the same amount of protein as from animal source, for example 100 grams of beef or chicken contains about 25 grams protein whereas 100 grams of cooked chickpeas about 7 grams protein, lentils about 9 grams protein, and quinoa about 12 grams protein. Peanuts, nuts and seeds are more protein dense plant foods. Noteworthy, animal proteins all contain every single of the essential amino acids, so they're called complete proteins. On the contrary, each plant food you eat has a different amino acid composition. For example, grains and cereals are extremely low in lysine. If you only eat grains and cereals, you won't get enough lysine. Whereas, legumes such as peanuts, peas, dry beans and lentils contain a lot of lysine. On the other hand, legumes aren't good sources of tryptophan, methionine and cystine, but those amino acids are found in grains and cereals. Grains and legumes are called complementary proteins because when you combine them (for example quinoa + lentils), you get all of the essential amino acids. Nuts and seeds are also complementary to legumes because they contain tryptophan, methionine, and cystine.
#4 Have healthy and real fats on your plate and avoid fake fats - include unsaturated fats (most of plant origin) and saturated fats (most of animal origin, except coconut oil), the best is to eat them in most natural forms, non-processed. We need both types of fats, in the right balance and of high quality. Many people often have: too high intake of commercial saturated fats by consuming too much dairy (cheese), meat (pork, lamb), ready-to-eat products, cookies, chips, chocolate, margarines; and too high intake of unsaturated omega-6 rich foods such as grains, nuts, seeds, and plant oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fatty acids pro-inflammatory. We need both of them but in the right balance. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fat fish, spinach, purslane, or flax seeds, pastured eggs, poultry and grass-fed beef. Include in your menu foods rich in unsaturated fats (which are essential for proper cell function) such as fat fish (wild), avocado, olives, hazelnuts, wild meat, pastured poultry and have naturally occurring saturated fats in your diet including coconut oil, ghee/butter, lard, duck fat, eggs or meat/poultry. Tip: Unsaturated fats are prone to oxidation which is promoted by heat, improper storage, light, processing therefore use unsaturated fats such as cold pressed extra virgin plant oils such as olive oil, flax seed oil, avocado oil, or borage oil for cold meals. If you buy an olive oil that’s suitable for cooking, baking – it means it’s refined oil. For warm/hot meals use (unrefined) saturated oils which are more stable during heating (lower oxidation risk) including extra virgin coconut oil, grass-fed butter, ghee, lard, goose fat, duck fat. Fake fats include processed vegetable oils, margarines and oil spreads – stay away from them.
#5 Have herbs, spices and unrefined salt – herbs help to stimulate digestion, detoxification and offer an antimicrobial effect. Spices offer immune boosting, anti-inflammatory and anti-disease properties. Salt is an important micronutrient that helps to regulate fluid balance, blood flow, the function of muscles, heart, nervous system and our brain. Unrefined sea salts and mine salts contain trace minerals that support our physiology, refined table salt however is stripped of these micronutrients. Moreover, herbs, spices and salt stimulate our senses, enrich our meals and simply make our food tasteful. Tip: combine your spices and herbs with high quality oil to promote absorption of certain phytochemicals.
#6 Watch your starch intake – starch overconsumption is a common problem in our western diet, where grain based products (breads, pastas, rice) over flow our plates. It’s like asking for trouble. Why? Because of too much starch and too little nutrients and as a result you are on a right track to get blood glucose swings, GI complaints and gut dysbiosis, to name a few issues. Let me cite here another brilliant quote of Michael Pollan: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead”. I suggest eating starches in moderation, in a size of a side dish. Also, instead of wheat use quinoa, buckwheat, or high quality oats and millet. Your carbohydrate intake may depend on your activities and daily needs but try to keep a moderate-carbohydrate intake. Think of vegetables as a source of complex carbohydrates and tubers, (sweet) potatoes as a source of healthy starch (simple carbs). Listen to your body, observe how you feel after starchy rich meals and find the balance of your starch intake. If you have carbohydrate intolerance, meaning your blood sugars stay elevated after eating, you may need to go down with starch and sugar consumption to stabilize it. Tip: refrigerate starchy cooked foods such as grains (pasta, rice), stem and root tubers (potatoes, beets), legumes (beans) for at least about 12 hours before consumption. Refrigeration will promote starch retrogradation, meaning that amylose and amylopectin chains reform and firm-up, become more resistant to our digestive enzymes. It has a positive effect on your blood glucose as it slows the rise of blood sugar following a meal and prolongs satiety. In addition beneficial microbes may also utilize it as food.
Let’s talk about proportions
Keeping below ratio of different food groups works well for most people.
Strive to have on your plate:
- About 50-70% of non-starchy vegetables
- About 10-15% of quality protein
- About 15-30% of healthy fats
- About 5-15% of healthy starches (optional)
- Herbs, spices and salt
Some foods combine both high fat and high protein content: sardines, herring, pork, chicken with skin, red meat with fatty tissue, nuts and seeds.
Strive that most of your meals will have this composition of nutrients. If it feels overwhelming now, don’t get discouraged but take small steps: first start optimizing one meal, for example your breakfast or your dinner. Once you mastered it, you can upgrade another meal.
Healthy eating also includes eating fruits but preferably have them as a snack or a dessert.
I combine my meals by putting together lots of cooked, steamed or raw veggies (Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, asparagus, carrots, celery, chard, spinach, kale, leek, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, lettuce, onion, sugar snaps, green beans etc.) with quality protein (eggs, poultry, wild caught fish, grass-fed beef, mushrooms, wild game, seeds, nuts, legumes, sheep cheese, goat cheese etc.) accompanied by healthy fats (naturally present in foods like avocado, olives, seeds and nuts and extracted oils in a form of olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, flax seed oil etc.), herbs, spices and salt. For some meals, I add healthy starches (buckwheat, quinoa, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, red beets, legumes etc.). If you have digestive issues, it may help if you avoid meals comprised of simple carb and starch rich foods with protein rich foods, meaning don’t combine meat with grains, potatoes or rice but go for meat, egg, seeds, nuts with vegetables or for grains, legumes, potatoes with vegetables.
Last but not least: snacks and desserts
Below are foods I eat if I snack or have a dessert.
Real food Snack ideas: olives, seeds, nuts, fresh and dry fruit, raw vegetables without or with a dip (pesto, avocado, tomato tapenade, tahini etc.), vegetable chips, chickpea chips, sweet potato toast with a grass-fed butter or a nut butter, vegetable smoothie, grass-fed cow yoghurt, coconut yoghurt, a piece of quality sheep cheese (manchego) or goat cheese, homemade chocolate milk, avocado, pickled sardines, radish, hard-boiled egg, light salad, coconut flesh, healthy sushi, quinoa cookie, banana bread, soup, bone broth, unsweetened coconut water.
Real food dessert ideas: A piece of dark chocolate (preferably min 80% cacao), avocado-cacao pudding, fruit ice cream (blended frozen fruits alone or with yogurt/kefir), dates, oatmeal cookies, coconut cookies, fresh or dry fruit, nuts, banana bread, fried banana slices with cinnamon, home-made apple or berries crumble, home-made brownie.