When it comes to build a healthy plate, getting the balanced right is about as clichéd as its namesake hashtag.
Pie charts. If they call to mind a middle manager named Dave talking you through the sales figures from the last quarter, they come into their own in the make-up of your plate. In the UK, a visual portrayal of a healthy diet is delivered to us not by Deliveroo,
but in the form of the NHS Eatwell Guide. And while Dave’s financial nous may be questionable, you’re in safe hands with this lot – the guide is based on advice from both the World Health Organization and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.
The guide is designed to show you what a healthy diet looks like over a period of a day or a week, rather than for each meal, because there are times when it’s useful to favour a particular macronutrient a protein-rich breakfast has been shown to support weight loss, while carb-heavy meals post-workout can speed up recovery. According to the guide, a third of your diet should come from fruit and veg, and the NHS advises eating at least five portions a day. Notice the ‘at least’ – evidence is mounting for benefits of up to 10 portions, or 800g, a day. As for the rest of your plate, it isn’t too prescriptive. Instead, we’re told to ‘base meals on starchy foods’, eat ‘some’ dairy, beans, pulses, fish, meat and eggs and consume unsaturated oils only in ‘small amounts’.
It’s intentionally vague – the ideal portion size depends on your individual body size, activity levels and weight goals. But the figures behind the guidelines do suggest that half of your daily calories should come from carbs. Of this figure, less than 5% should come from added sugars, and your choices should help you reach the recommended intake of 30g of fibre daily. Overwhelmed? Join the club. In 2016, scientists from the British Nutrition Foundation explored the real-world feasibility of these recommendations.
They found that it was possible to eat this way, but only if all meals were based on starchy foods (mainly wholegrain), daily fruit and veg intake amounted to eight portions and snacks were high-fibre. As for protein, a palm-sized portion at each meal (plant or animal) will meet the recommended 0.8g per kilo of body weight per day, but there may be times when it’s beneficial to consume more, such as during weight loss or muscle gain. And if you’re eschewing carbs in favour of protein, you might want to rethink, as low-carb diets are lower in fibre, the very stuff that protects against bowel cancer, heart disease and type-2 diabetes, as well as fertilising your microbiome. For cooking and flavour, fats from olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds are best.
Ready to build that plate? Start with two portions of fruit and veg (whole fruit, not juice, because of fibre). Next, add whole grains. Start with a cupped handful and increase portion sizes pre and post-exercise (between 0.8g and 1g per kilo of body weight after an intense workout). Add protein (larger portions at breakfast and post-workout) and finish with some dairy or a drizzle of healthy fat. And that, friends, is a pie chart worth paying attention to.