Dream Big: Eat the Entire Food Pyramid

Feel like you've been eating (you fill in the blank with the food) for 232 days in a row...because it's quick and easy and it gets the job done? Hit the reset button with this four-week plan designed to get you eating from every section of the food pyramid (or the MyPlate). Bonappetit!

Week 1: Prioritize Produce

Here’s the science: Last month we put sugar in its place—firmly at the bottom of our nutrition priorities. This month, we’re focusing not on what to cut from our diets, but instead on what we should add in. Remember the Food Pyramid? It’s how we learned, in elementary school, about the food groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and diary—and how much we should eat each day.

Well, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has since given the food pyramid a makeover. In fact, it’s got a whole new shape: a plate. How appropriate! The idea is the same, though: Meet your food group needs with nutrient-dense meals and stay within calorie limits. But the truth is, hardly any of us do it. The USDA says more than 80% of Americans have dietary patterns that are low in vegetables, fruits, and dairy. And that sets us up for poor health and puts us at risk of becoming overweight or obese.

We could all use a nudge toward healthier choices. Where to start… You can take this USDA quiz to see where you’re meeting and falling short of the dietary guidelines. Already know your diet needs some work? Let’s set a small goal for this week and do it together!

Move-the-Needle Monday: This week we are putting the spotlight on fruits and veggies. On average, women need 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables each day. Men need 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of veggies. Fruits are easy because you can grab an apple or banana any time of day, says Billings, MT-based registered dietitian nutritionist Tiffany Ricci, co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition.

On the other hand, vegetables can be trickier to work in. They may take time to peel, slice, and cook, and the USDA says a whopping 90% of us aren’t meeting the daily vegetable goal. Ricci’s target for you this week: Fill half your lunch and dinner plates with vegetables every day.

The plan: For lunch, your whole plate can be veggie-fied with what Ricci calls a “chunky salad.” Consider it a level-up for your standard lettuce with tomatoes and carrots. The chunky version has loads of texture plus protein via ingredients like canned beans, cooked grains, olives, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover chicken. Up the vegetable ante by topping it with pre-chopped cabbage, canned corn, and even a scoop of fresh chunky salsa (that scoop alone could contain a whole serving of vegetables). “You could knock out the entire day’s allotment of veggies in one meal,” Ricci says. How good would that feel?

For dinner, load your plate with your favorite roasted veggies. This takes a little prep work but it pays dividends with big flavor. Roast two large sheet-pans-full on Sunday and tuck them into containers in the fridge for the whole week. Throw them on your chunky salads or warm them up for quick dinner sides.

Here’s how to make them: Preheat your oven to 425 degrees, then cut your veggies of choice into bite-size pieces (or buy a pre-cut bag). Toss them with ¼ cup olive oil and some salt and pepper, then scatter them over a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Bake, checking on them every 10 minutes until they are tender and crispy around the edges. Asparagus, green beans, peppers, and zucchini take 10 to 20 minutes; broccoli and cauliflower take 15 to 25 minutes. Potatoes and carrots take 30 to 45 minutes.

Top tip: Embracing that veggie-lovin’ life but need more flavor? Ricci says dried herbs such as thyme, rosemary, or a spice blend like Morraccan ras el hanout can take roasted veggies up several notches. Add fresh herbs like dill, parsley, or cilantro into your salads to boost taste. And toss fresh or cooked vegetables with a tangy dressing by combining a little oil with something sour (tahini, Dijon, balsamic, or lemon and lime juice).

Week 2: Get Half of Your Carbs from Whole Grains

Here’s the science: Did you know that what you eat might help your brain function better? Research suggests that the gut microbiome (that’s the colony of good bacteria living inside your digestive system) communicates with your brain. And according to a multi-study review in the journal Nutrition Reviews, these chatty bacteria can affect emotional behavior and other brain systems. Specifically, studies have shown a strong link between the gut microbiome and stress-related disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Some foods are known gut-helpers: Behold! Whole grains contain fiber and phytonutrients, which promote the growth of that good gut bacteria, says Tiffany Ricci, a registered dietician nutritionist and co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition, a nutrition-consulting and coaching company, in Billings, MT.

We’re not talking about regular pasta and white rice here, but rather the nutty, brown goodness found in the likes of 100% whole-grain breads, cereals, oatmeal, and brown rice. “Fiber is a good ‘workout’ for your gut,” Ricci says. “The good bacteria wants to eat fiber. They don’t want McDonald’s.” So, what counts as a “whole grain,” and how can we make sure we’re getting enough? That, my friends, leads us to our goal for week two.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Our target this week: Make sure half of all the grains you eat are whole grains. It’s likely you’re already getting your recommended grains each day—most of us carb-lovers do—but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says only about half of all Americans actually hit the recommendation of making half of those amounts whole grains. How much should we be getting? If you’re a woman under 50, you’ll want 3 oz. of your 6 oz. total daily intake of grains to come from things like whole-grain bread and pastas. For women 51 and over, target 4 oz. of your total 8 oz. of grains to be whole grain. For men ages 19 to 30, you’ll want 4 oz. of your total 8 oz. grain intake to be whole grain. For men ages 31 to 50, whole grains should total 3.5 oz. out of your 7 oz. total grain intake. And, for men 51 and older, try for 3 oz. of whole grains from your daily intake of 6 oz. of grains per day.

An ounce equals 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereal. You can find more serving ideas at the USDA website.

The plan: This week, one day at a time, start substituting whole grains where you would normally have refined grains. (Think: pastries, pastas, cereals, breads, chips, and crackers made with white flour.)

  • Monday: For breakfast, if you’d normally have a bowl of Rice Krispies, substitute a bowl of oatmeal, but be sure to top it the way you would your cereal, with a sliced banana or handful of berries, so it satisfies your need for routine. Try wholewheat or buckwheat pancake mix (just one 4.5-inch pancake counts as a whole ounce of whole grains!).

  • Tuesday: For lunch, throw a cup of cooked barley or quinoa into your lunchtime salads. Substitute 100% whole grain and whole-wheat bread for your usual sandwich bread. This is key: The package must say 100% whole grain. There are plenty of less-than-healthful imposters out there masquerading as whole grains. Watch out!

  • Wednesday: For snacks, try a whole-grain English muffin with peanut butter, or search the cracker aisle at your grocery store for some whole-grain alternatives. Read the labels. Whole grains should be the first ingredient listed on the box. Sneaky serving: Three cups of popped popcorn counts as a 1-oz. serving of whole grains.

  • Thursday: For dinner, try subbing your usual spaghetti or penne with a whole-grain version. If the texture is too, well, cardboard-like, try cooking it a couple minutes longer than the box recommends to make it softer, Ricci suggests, or swap in whole-wheat couscous, which isn’t quite as dense as bigger pasta shapes.

  • Friday: For dessert, it’s time to get creative. Two squares of this Indian pudding recipe constitute an entire serving of whole grains—and it’s dessert! Or, try these mini fruit pizzas. A single serving of this recipe counts for two servings of whole grains. Bonus: They’re topped with nutrient-packed fresh fruit and they are super cute.

Top tip: There’s a reason we tend to choose these refined grains over their whole grain counterparts. “Refined grains have a great 'mouth feel,'” Ricci says, “so you can’t swap brown rice or pasta for white and expect it to taste the same. It doesn’t.” Be realistic about your new goals and give yourself some grace for an occasional indulgence. Ricci tells her clients to remind themselves: “Treat treats as treats and only have them occasionally.”

Week 3: Pick Lean Proteins

Here’s the science: Sticking to a nutrient-dense diet can be a constant exercise in willpower. When hunger strikes mid-day, we may not have access to healthy options so…off to the vending machine we go! The key to staving off the munchies is packing high-protein foods into our meals. In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychology, scientists found that the products of digested protein—peptides—send signals to the brain that are transmitted back to the gut. The gut is then stimulated to release glucose, which suppresses your desire to eat. Most Americans get their recommended daily amount of protein, but it often comes in the form of the high-fat, high-cholesterol, high-sodium type, such as processed meats. Consuming too much of that stuff can lead to health complications like heart disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This week let’s talk turkey about eating more lean protein. (See what we did there?)

Move-the-Needle Monday: Whether you’re a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or a self-proclaimed carnivore, our focus this week is on making leaner, more varied selections in the protein department. Here’s how much daily protein the USDA recommends: Women: age 19 to 30 years need 5 to 6½ oz.; women 31 and older need 5 to 6 oz. Men: age 19 to 30 years need 6 ½ to 7 oz.; age 31 to 50 need 6 to 7 oz.; age 51 and older need 5 ½ to 6 ½ oz. People who are very physically active may need more. The USDA “My Plate” quiz can help you figure out your ideal protein intake.

The plan: We're making it easy for you by laying out a week's worth of healthy eating.

  • Monday: It’s meatless Monday! Hear us out: Subbing in plant-based protein sources (beans, nuts and seeds, lentils) for some of your go-to animal-based protein sources (meats) can help ensure your protein choices are lean, says nutritionist Tiffany Ricci, R.D., co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition in Billings, MT. “Beans and lentils are comparable to meat in protein content, but they are almost fat-free,” Ricci says. Try adding a cup of lentils to your favorite chili recipe instead of ground beef. One cup of cooked lentils has almost the same amount of protein as 3 oz. of 90%-lean ground beef and 13 fewer grams of fat.

  • Tuesday: Nix the sausage and bacon. Instead, get your lean protein at breakfast via eggs your favorite way (three egg whites equal 2 oz. of your daily intake and three yolks equal 1 oz. of protein), or top a bowl of oatmeal with a handful of nuts and seeds (a 1-oz. portion contains 2 oz. toward your daily protein total).

  • Wednesday: A can of salmon or tuna can be a quick, inexpensive source of lean protein for lunch, but the fishy flavor can trend toward overpowering. That’s why we reach for the mayo jar to mellow out tuna before spreading it over bread for a sandwich, Ricci says, which can add unnecessary saturated fat. Instead, mix in leaner ingredients like plain yogurt and a squirt of grainy brown mustard. Other options: hummus with lemon juice or mashed avocado with lime juice.

  • Thursday: It’s fish night. Ricci recommends splurging on flavorful cold-water fish such as halibut, salmon, or tuna for grilling or baking. These cuts can be pricey, but you’ll save in calories because they’re so flavorful you’ll only need salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a dollop of pesto to make them tastebud-ready. For a budget-friendly version, though, try tilapia.

  • Weekend: After a week of diligently selecting lean proteins, you may feel like rewarding yourself with a juicy burger. We say go for it! But you don’t have to give up on your goals to indulge. Ricci recommends opting for lean—but not the leanest—ground beef at your supermarket to keep your burgers tender and juicy. Look for “85% lean / 15% fat” on the package. “If you are having a burger, get the 85/15 because it’s the main star of the meal. If you’re putting ground beef in the sauce for spaghetti get the leaner 90% / 10%.” You’re less likely to note any textural differences when the leaner beef is swimming in a delicious sauce.

Top tip: OK. We’re going to make one exception to our rule of choosing low-fat meat options. If you are prone to overeating at dinner (we’re all guilty from time to time) swap out your usual skinless chicken breast for skinless chicken thighs to help you reach your protein goal without the risk of overeating. Why? Chicken thigh meat naturally has more fat than breast meat, says Ricci, and that extra fat leaves you more satiated after you eat, so you’re less likely to overeat. Still, keep portion size in mind: a 3 oz. piece of chicken (breast or thigh) counts as a 3-oz. serving of protein.

Week 4: Double Down on Low-Fat Dairy

Here’s the science: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says a full 90% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of dairy and could benefit from upping their low-fat dairy intake. Dairy products contain vital nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D for strong teeth and bones (important as we age and lose bone mass), as well as potassium—key in helping us maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Now, if you can’t have dairy for any reason, you’ll have to look for these nutrients from other foods (and we offer some suggestions, below), but if dairy is a food group you can get on board with, we’ve got a plan to help you make some healthy choices (pulls out cheese board).

Move-the-Needle Monday: Both men and women need three cups of dairy every day, according to the USDA. The agency recommends getting that in the form of nutrient-rich choices such as milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese. Not included under the “healthy dairy choices” category: any food made from milk that has little calcium and a high-fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, and butter (sorry!). If dairy is off the menu for you, consider getting your calcium from these foods: calcium-fortified juices, cereals, breads, and plant-based milk alternatives such as rice and/or almond milk; canned fish (sardines, salmon with bones), soybeans, soy products (tofu made with calcium sulfate, soy yogurt, tempeh), and some leafy greens (collard and turnip greens, kale, bok choy).

The plan: Consume three cups of dairy or calcium every day this week. In addition to the options we just mentioned, think outside the (ahem) carton. Have you tried fermented dairy? Hear us out. Yogurt and its tangier, more sippable cousin, kefir, can be great dairy options that also pack a probiotic punch, which boost your gut’s colony of healthy bacteria, says Tiffany Ricci, R.D., nutritionist, and co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition, a nutrition-coaching company, in Billings, MT.

And, fermented dairy may even prevent heart disease, according to one study published by the British Journal of Nutrition. Of the 2,000 men who participated in the study, those who ate plenty of fermented dairy products (including yogurt and some types of cheese) had a smaller risk of coronary artery disease than the men who ate less.

But be careful when choosing low-fat yogurts, Ricci says. “Sometimes when it’s low-fat, they’ll add in other stuff.” This includes sugar or sweeteners that can turn a healthy serving of dairy into a not-so-healthy dessert!

Top tip: The USDA has some great tools to help you set daily nutrition goals that are right for you and your body. You can check how many calories you need each day for your body type and lifestyle via the Personal Plan tool at myplate.gov/myplate-plan. And if you’re into tracking things, you can even download the widget to your phone to help you meet your daily goals for weeks and months to come. How’s that for lasting change?

Danielle Gamiz
Meet Our Writer
Danielle Gamiz

Danielle Gamiz is a contributing editor at HealthCentral. She is the assigning editor for the coverage areas of Arthritis & Joints and Caregiving. She also serves as a copy editor across various topics. Danielle enjoys learning from HealthCentral's patient experts and health writers as they educate, inform, and uplift our audience every day.