I hate this question, and I bet if you ask other dietitians they would feel the same way. But I feel that I should answer this question the best way I can since everyone wants to know and always asks me this. This is such a hard question, because there is no hard evidence that there is one correct way to eat for everyone. If there was- you would be able to just go to the store and buy a pack of nutrients for the week and be done with it. But it’s just not that simple because every one is so different. However, there is a generally agreed upon pattern of eating that I can speak to. So let’s dive in and I’ll try to not make this excruciatingly long and boring.
Plant-based meal from Burma Superstar (San Francisco)
“Eat food, not to much, mostly plants” - Michael Pollan
If you really want a rule from me- this is it. “Eat food”- eat food not poison, drugs (duh). I also understand this to mean eat food in it’s most natural state (picked from the ground or killed)- so not candies, pastries, supplements. Just real food. “Not too much”- just eat what you need until you’re full. Don’t eat until you’re sick or drink until you pass out. Just eat what you need to stop being hungry. “Mostly Plants”- when you can, eat mostly fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (whole grains are a plant because they grow from the earth). The amount of meat humans need to eat is controversial, but plants always win out in science for a healthy diet.
For a more specific description of a “diet” that I live by- I use the government’s model of My Plate. You can follow the link in the title for the website. My Plate replaced the food pyramid and I love it! I think its an easy visual to use wherever you are trying to make sure you’re eating the right amounts of the different food groups. You want half of your plate to be fruits and vegetables, 1/4 to be whole grains, and 1/4 to be protein (meat or vegan). You don’t really have to do the milk part. I also love this model because you can change it to however you like to eat. Let’s say you want to be vegan- do half fruits/ veg, 1/4 beans, 1/4 whole grains. Or you want to do keto- half low carb veggies, 1/4 protein/ 1/4 probably more veggies since whole grains have a lot of carbs (which isn’t a bad thing)! If you’re on a budget this also works by using frozen veggies, canned meat, and brown rice. It does get a little tricky with meal that are mixed up (like soup or pasta), but just keep in mind the same proportions. I just love how adaptable this is and how easy it is to think about when you’re eating out or on vacation.
3. Listen to your body
Beyond all else. I do try to eat “mostly plants,” but I don’t make any hard rules about it because sometimes I do crave meat. If I’m super hungry and know that I need something more filling than plants then I’ll eat some meat. Or if I’m really craving dessert I won’t try to eat a “healthier dessert” I’ll just eat the dang dessert. If I listen to my body and indulge in the not-so-healthy foods then I always eventually crave healthy food again. Yes I’ll actually crave salad and roasted veggies and apples, but I also sometimes crave some chips. I was a little nervous about eating this way in the beginning because I knew that if I have a cookie, I’m going to end up eating like 4 or 5. But after I let myself just do it, I had a very bad stomach ache. So now every time I am offered dessert I think- is this something I’m really craving? Is my stomach going to hurt after? And sometimes I know that my stomach will hurt so I just say “no thanks” and sometimes I know just one cookie is going to be okay and I accept the offer. It’s kind of a weird concept to explain, but the bottom line is- don’t deny yourself and listen to what your body wants to eat.
4. Substantial and Meaningful Snacks
I do snack- pretty often actually. But I make it very nutrient dense. It’s not just eating because I’m bored or because something tastes good. It’s another way for me to get in another serving of fruits and vegetables or whole grains. I always combine protein with carbs either by eating nuts and fruit, or cheese and whole grain crackers or something like that. I think snacking is a way that people can get lost in nutrition and just eat because food is there. Instead, make snacking more meaningful- if you’re hungry between meals then snack, but still strive for “mostly plants.”
Plate of fruit from Mexico City
Homemade pizza using Trader Joe’s butternut squash pizza crust
5. No strict rules!
I know this is not really what anyone wants to read, but it’s what keeps me sane. I do try to eat a mostly plant-based diet, but I never do this 100%. I just let it be a guide for my choices. When you make strict rules about eating it can effect your social life and your relationship with food. Food is not only nutrition but it’s also culture, history, art, entertainment. Now this doesn’t mean that every meal should be an excuse to eat donuts and chips, but it’s okay to eat more than enough for thanksgiving. It’s okay to eat a chocolate cake for your birthday. It’s okay even if it’s not your birthday! Just try to follow the My Plate method best you can, and if you can’t then no worries!
6. My only “off limit foods”
The only foods that I personally do not eat is processed grains (pasta & breads). I just don’t see much of any nutrition benefits and they actually kind of hurt my stomach. I never really make pasta for myself or go to Italian restaurants. I never really eat sandwiches or rolls. I think there are some good seeded breads, but I still believe eating grains in the form of rice or farro or some other grain is a much better source. These foods can be healthy if you eat a small portion of them in the whole grain version, but I always over eat pasta and bread so I try to just stay away from them. I still eat them sometimes, like tacos or pancakes, but I really try to avoid them if there’s a different option.
Homemade pasta with asparagus, arugula, and feta cheese
Salad bowl from Simply Greek in Raleigh, NC
7. Think of “healthier swaps”
This is a trick that I do that I think helps me a lot! When cooking at home I try to think of the way to eat the most plant-based as possible. Some examples: at a restaurant, I look for the vegan options. Brown rice instead of white rice? Salad greens instead of rice? Farro instead of pasta? Beans instead of meat? Fruit instead of dessert? A lot of times I find that these options taste similar and allow me to get a little creative while cooking.