Daily – no, several times a day actually – I receive email questions about how to get started on eating for plant-based health and fitness. People see the changes that I have gone through and note my unbridled enthusiasm for a whole-foods, low fat, plant-based diet. It has been the cornerstone of my own personal transformation, so no wonder, and I am happy to share.
Always seeking the simplest way to help you get started, I realize my plant-based diet is really organized on a 5 food group plan: veggies, starchies, fruit, beans, and nuts and seeds.
The 5 Food Groups
1) Veggies: green and yellow, high water content vegetables. These are the ones you recognize as more perishable: leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, crispy colorfuls.
2) Starchies: this includes starchy vegetables as well as whole grains. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, peas, winter squash, rice, oats, quinoa, pasta – the list is endless.
4) Beans and legumes: lentils, beans, dried peas, pulses. Officially, these are starchies. Yet with a higher protein content than starchy vegetables, I view them somewhat differently. It is actually easy to get more protein than we need on a plant-based diet. 5 – 10% of our calories from protein is sufficient and more than that just puts stress on the body as it tries to expel the excess. Protein can’t be stored like carbohydrate or fat. About a cup from the beans and legumes group a day is a good amount to aim for so that you get all the advantages of nutrition and satiety.
5) Nuts and seeds: 1/2 – 1 oz. a day, depending on your goals. They can slow you down if you are trying to lose weight, they can help you gain if that’s what you are looking for.
How the 5 food groups pan out on the plate
Play along with me here. Let go of all the ideas you have about ‘portions’ and the 4 food groups when the dairy and meat lobbies staked their claim on the food group scene with their own categories. Got it? OK.
Here’s how the 5 food groups play themselves out on my plate. If I look back on a day of good eating, and I could pile everything I ate on a big platter, here’s approximately what it would look like:
- 1/2 of the platter would be filled with the veggies
- 1/2 half of the platter would be filled with the starchies
- on top of all of it would be a cup of beans
- and 2 – 3 pieces of fruit
- a Tablespoon or so of nuts or seeds
See how easy that is? So how do you build that from the first meal of the day? Again, I’ll share my pattern.
Breakfast: Large bowl of whole grain cereal with berries, banana, peaches, or other juicy fruit on top. Sometimes pancakes or waffles.
Lunch: Large bowl of soup with vegetables, starchies and beans. In warmer weather, soup shifts out for salad. Veggie sandwich with hummus, tomato, or other vegetables on whole grain bread.
Dinner: Plateful of 50/50 starchies, including beans and legumes, and veggies. This could be a heap of brown rice topped topped with, for example, a bright legume curry or black beans and salsa, with steamed or stir-fried (without oil) vegetables with a simple sauce .
Sometimes I’ll get fancy and make a casserole, lasagna, or tacos/enchiladas for dinner. Usually simple fare, which suits me just fine.
The beauty of the way I eat is that I get all of my essential nutrients (with the addition of vitamin b12) and stay trim and energetic without counting, weighing, and measuring. My ideal, as I’ve told you before (see My McDougall Diet Failure and Plant-Based Passsionista philosophy and story), is to eat according to appetite and stay slim, without obsessing and calculating every gram of macronutrient.
What if it’s too scary to let go of all the controls?
If you are used to the controls of counting, weighing, and measuring, and find it too scary to let go of it all at once, I understand. We are frightened of what would happen if we let our bodies do the measuring. It’s a shift into what I call body-controlled eating that we crave yet of which we can be terrified.
In that case, and you feel like simplifying to 5 food groups is enough to help you get started and you’ll tackle the ‘body controlled’ part later, no problem, I’ll break that down for you.
1) Veggies: 7 + servings. One serving is 1 cup raw leafy or 1/2 cup steamed/stir fried. By the time I’ve had veggies in salad or soup for lunch and more salad and steamed veggies for dinner, plus noshing on raw veggies as I prepare meals, I’m easily in for 7 – 10 + servings a day.
2) Starchies: 7+ servings. 1/2 cup of cooked whole grains or one small potato = 1 serving. By the time I’ve had 1 1/2 cups of oatmeal for breakfast, potatoes or squash as a base for my soup at lunch, sandwich, and pile of brown rice or some type of potato with vegetables for dinner, I’m easily in for 8 – 10 + servings for the day.
3) Fruit: 2 – 3 servings. 1 on my morning grains, another at some point during the day or perhaps as dessert.
4) Beans and legumes: 2 servings. One serving is 1/2 cup cooked. Usually about 1 cup/day. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. Remember, I’m not measuring. In soup at lunch or with grains at dinner, sometimes mashed into a burger or as a spread via hummus.
5) Nuts and seeds: Up to 1 oz/day. Usually 1 Tablespoon of ground flax seed on my morning cereal, sometimes walnuts, sometimes in the form of tahini for a richer dressing.
If I had to figure out the calories in this content, here’s what I would do.
Veggies : 30 – 50 calories per cup, many lots less such as leafy greens
Starchies : approximately 200 calories/cup
Fruits: approximately 60 calories per serving
Beans: approximately 100 calories per 1/2 cup
Nuts and seeds: approximately 50 calories per Tablespoon.
Thus, 10 veggies = 350 calories, 10 starchies = 1.000 calories, 2 fruits = 120 calories, 1 cup beans = 200 calories, and 1 T nuts and seeds = 50 calories for a total of 1720 – 2000 calories.
I figure I eat about 2,00o calories/day, depending on the caloric variation within the veggies, fruits, and starchies. About 10 – 15 % calories from protein, the same from fat.
What about condiments?
This leaves me a little wiggle room for condiments. These I call actually call ‘decorations’ because they are just that. The more your tastes become realigned to whole, natural foods, the less you need the decorations. But I enjoy my own flavor agents just like anyone else. Some nonfat sauces on my rice and veggies, dressing on salads, mustard on my sandwiches, maple syrup on my hotcakes, and ketchup on my veggie burger.
Here’s how I figure this in. I am mindful of ‘decoration’ calories being no more than about 5% of my total for the day. At this low rate, they aren’t going to cause me any problems. Yet I know if I go overboard on them, they can become problematic with bumping up empty calories. 5% of 2,000 is 100 calories. That’s a Tablespoon of maple syrup and a few shakes of fat-free salad dressing or veg sauce.
I am not telling you what to eat
Note that I am simply sharing with you how I eat, grounded in the principles of Plant-Based Nutrition as studied in my Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course via Cornell University as well as intensive studies in my role as Fitness Expert for the McDougall Health and Medical Center. This includes hours of study at the McDougall Advanced Nutrition Study Weekends over the past few years.
If you want to lose weight
Simply up the veggies and wiggle down fat content. Be more prudent about processed foods. This is exactly what I do if my weight has nudged up a couple of pounds or there is a little extra fluff around the middle from too many feast days with higher fat foods or too free a hand with the ‘decorations’.
If you want to gain weight
Eat more concentrated calories, such as processed whole grains (whole grain bread) and smoothies (processed fruit and greens). In these edibles, the fiber has been disrupted so it is easier to take in more calories if desired. You may also be able to tolerate more high fat whole foods, such as avocados, nuts, and olives, if your health allows.
The point is, keep it simple.
As long as you follow these guidelines, you can liberate yourself from counting, weighing, and measuring madness. Don’t addle your brain. It frees up more band width for reading (or writing!) that book, taking that hike, painting that painting…you get the idea.
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