It’s almost impossible to avoid all the talk about how we should eat to stay healthy or lose a few pounds. Diet gurus tell us a number of different things – to cut carbs, eat less red meat, eliminate sugar, eat like a caveman or like you live near the Mediterranean and much more.
But what if you don’t want to spend the majority of your day worrying about food?
That was my goal when I decided to follow the USDA ChooseMyPlate plan which focuses on five food groups: protein, grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy. You eat certain amounts of each based on your age and gender, with adjustments if you are interested in weight loss. I thought that if I kept an eye on portions and aimed for balanced meals, I could just eat and stop worrying about a bunch of rules and banned foods.
My daily allotments included:
- 1.5 cups of fruit
- 2 cups of vegetables
- 5 ounces of whole grain
- 5 ounces of protein
- 3 cups of dairy
My first reaction was that compared to what I usually eat, the dairy portion seemed high, the protein portion minuscule, and I was going to have to start buying more fruit. Tracking my portions took a bit more math than I had anticipated, but I was ready to try it and see how I fared.
Here’s what I found.
Week One: I’m Hungry
I always ate what I considered a good breakfast: usually a two-egg omelet with some cheese and whole grain toast. It kept me full until lunchtime, which made it easy to ignore the various goodies that pop up in the kitchen at work. But keeping in mind that each egg counted as an ounce of protein, I decided to cut back to one scrambled egg and a kiwi.
My stomach started rumbling at 10:30 a.m.
At lunchtime I was still focused on keeping the protein portion low, so I went heavy on vegetables with 2 tablespoons of hummus to dip them in (It counts as 1 ounce of protein, so I would have 3 ounces left for dinner.).
By 3 p.m. I was desperately craving something salty and crunchy — crackers or chips crunchy, not celery with salt. I drank some water and snacked on a small apple. I felt virtuous but doubtful this could be a lifestyle change for me.
All of that led me to truly enjoy my dinner, though. I had lamb, green beans, tomato juice and a bit of brown rice. I cleaned my plate and didn’t want seconds.
Takeaway: I needed more food at breakfast. In the following days I added some sort of whole grain, and I added vegetables and/or cheese to my omelets. Sometimes I used two eggs. That ended the stomach rumbles while keeping my plate balanced.
Week Two: No Math Needed
After a week of carefully measuring out all my foods, I decided to wing it. I knew what a balanced plate looked like, and I would be repeating a lot of the meals with small variations anyway. I promised myself that if I caught myself overindulging in any food group, I would go back to careful measuring.
It wasn’t necessary. My appetite had changed, and I didn’t want more than my daily amounts. A few slices of turkey on whole grain bread with a cup of baby carrots and slices of red bell pepper tasted great for lunch. A handful of nuts or a cup of raspberries in the afternoon worked for snacking, so I didn’t run down to the vending machine for a bag of Cheez-Its.
Then came the day when I went out for lunch. I felt pretty confident and decided to test myself, ordering a sandwich from a healthy fast-casual chain. A half-order was an indulgence. A full sandwich was a numbers buster. I figured I’d order the whole sandwich and be stuffed before I got to the second half. I was wrong.
Made on a delicious, crusty Italian bread, the chicken, bacon, white barbecue sauce and melted Swiss cheese was divine, and I could not stop eating. I absolutely believe that would not have held true if the bread was a dense whole grain. Foods with fiber do fill you up.
Takeaway: Choosing the right foods makes it easier to stick to healthy portions. I had thought that I lost my ability to feel full as I got older, but I had actually moved away from foods that satisfy hunger.
Week Three: Results
These days, when people start raving about a miracle diet, I tell them I’m on the ChooseMyPlate plan. Basically, I’m eating less, and it seems to be working. I lost four pounds over the course of three weeks, and I feel pretty good.
Food writer Michael Pollan famously advised: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
For me, simplicity is at the heart of most successful diets. While the advice changes, the basics of a healthy diet have remained consistent for quite a while. What’s changed over the years is the kinds of food that are available and the portion sizes we’ve become accustomed to.
I found that I could eat much less food, still enjoy the things that I liked, and not go hungry.
Recently, I met some friends for dinner and ordered one of my go-to dishes. When the server brought it to the table, my eyes widened. There was so much food! How did I ever eat all that before?
Takeaway: More than half of that meal, in a box, to bring home.