To Lose Weight, Rethink Your Plate

Instead of fixating on calories, why not make over your plate?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

What if, instead of fixating on calories, you could lose weight and improve your health by focusing on what your plate looks like at mealtimes?

That's the idea behind one of the newest concepts in nutrition. Connie Guttersen, PhD, RD, author of The Sonoma Diet, calls it the plate concept. It's all about replacing high-fat, high-calorie foods with more nutritious options -- and enjoying delicious food. Gone are mega-portions of meat and casseroles. The 21st century plate is a colorful display of fruits, vegetables, salads, whole grains, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy, and lean meats, fish, and poultry.

"You don't need to adopt a vegetarian diet (unless you choose to). You simply need to shift your thinking away from the meat-and-potatoes mentality and more toward plant foods," says Elizabeth Ward, RD, author of The Pocket Idiot's Guide to the New Food Pyramids.

Her advice: Strive to cover two-thirds of your plate with plant foods and one-third with lean or low- fat meats, dairy, or other main dishes. (To make sure your main dish is a healthy one, choose lean cuts of meat, cook them with little or no added fat, and trim all visible fat.)

Contrast this with the traditional American meal in which a main dish covers half the plate, and starches fill one-quarter to one-half -- and with any luck, there's room left for a vegetable. All too often, this typical meat-and-potatoes dinner is far too high in fat, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and calories.

Move Over, Main Dishes

By filling your plate with more plant-based foods, you get an abundance of disease-fighting plant compounds (called phytonutrients) that can help prevent chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Not only that, but plant foods are virtually fat-free and tend to be low in calories and rich in fiber -- which helps keep you feeling full.

"Fill up your plate with a variety of colorful foods, and you will feel full on fewer calories and gain all the health benefits of a diet rich in plant foods," says Guttersen.

Indeed, the latest government nutrition slogan is "Fruit & Veggies -- More Matters." This replaces the old "5 a Day" campaign and is aimed at encouraging people to get the recommended seven or more daily servings of fruit and veggies.

"It sounds like a lot to eat, but if you are covering two-thirds of your plate with fruits, vegetables, greens, beans, and whole grains, it won't be hard to satisfy the new recommendations and still lose weight," says Ward.

It's also important to follow the advice of the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines and choose a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables.

"Focus on adding more color on your plate, and not only will it be prettier and more inviting to eat but from a nutritional perspective, all those vivid colors deliver nutrients for a healthier diet," Gutterson says.

Control Portions Without Going Hungry

Achieving or maintaining a healthy weight means controlling portion sizes, especially when it comes to calorie-rich foods. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a steak, chicken breast, or pork tenderloin -- as long as you choose a center or loin cut, or skinless, white poultry, and eat only about 4-6 ounces.

A simple way to measure this sensible portion is by using the palm of your hand (it's about the same size as a healthy serving). But however you measure it, if you're used to a 12-ounce portion, that 4-ounce piece of meat is going to look small.

"Cut the meat against the grain and fan it out atop of a grain or vegetable, incorporating it into the other components on the plate," suggests Guttersen.

Another trick she uses is to combine foods and make one pretty plate instead of have everything look like separate dishes.

Here's another tip: Use a 9-inch plate so your serving won't look skimpy.

All this doesn't mean you'll be going hungry.

"You can be liberal with portions of plant foods because you tend to get full before you can overeat these, especially if you prepare them simply and don't load them with high-fat ingredients," says Ward.

Making Over Your Plate

If you're accustomed to the meat-and-potatoes way of eating, how do you go about making over your plate?

Experts recommend that you gradually make changes in the way you purchase, cook, and order meals. Most people don't eat enough plant foods, so adding just one more to each meal is a good place to start.