How many times have you heard (or said), “No thanks, I’m on a diet”? We talk about a “diet” like it’s something we’ll eventually get off, like a ride at the state fair, when in fact, we’re all on a diet. A diet is technically just food and drink regularly provided or consumed.
Our diets can do more for our bodies than give us the basic energy we need to live. Eating well can help keep us feeling well. An extra bonus to eating well also includes staving off many diseases––even some cancers. Amy Hieb, an oncology dietitian for Essentia Health in Fargo, says nutrition “is a variable that we have control over to help minimize our risk for developing cancer.”
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says if everyone ate a healthy diet, was physically active every day, and maintained a healthy weight, approximately one-third of the most common cancers could be prevented worldwide.
The AICR, a cancer charity that fosters research on diet and cancer, has released diet recommendations called the “New American Plate” that aim to change the way we think about what we eat. You don’t necessarily have to eliminate foods or follow a strict meal plan. Simply combine the food you eat into new proportions, or make some substitutions.
The New American Plate guidelines, based on the expert panel report “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective” are centered on a simple concept: Plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans) should cover two-thirds (or more) of your plate. Fish, poultry, meat, and low-fat dairy should cover one-third (or less) of your plate.
With these guidelines you can eliminate counting calories, weighing portions, or memorizing a list of vitamins, minerals, and their sources. You just have to examine your plate and make sure two-thirds of it is covered in plant-based foods and the remaining one-third is animal protein. The objective is to achieve these plate proportions at as many meals as possible.
Replacing the Pyramid
Most of us were taught the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid. In June, the pyramid was replaced with “MyPlate,” which is similar to the New American Plate. “Both concepts are focusing on portioning your plate, making healthy food choices, monitoring serving sizes, and monitoring the number of portions consumed,” Hieb says.
In the U.S., meat is typically treated as the main event. Meals are planned around meat, and starches and vegetables are served as sides. The AICR aims to reverse that way of thinking by placing a greater emphasis on plant-based foods.
According to the New American Plate, meat should be treated as a side dish or condiment rather than the focus of the meal. “Consuming smaller portion sizes of meat can help reduce our calorie intake and still provide the nutrients needed,” Hieb comments. Start by planning meals around the produce that’s on sale for the week, she says, or pick an in-season vegetable or fruit to inspire a dish.
Convincing evidence links red meat to colon cancer, and the evidence linking processed meats like sausage, bacon, ham, luncheon meats, and hot dogs to colon cancer is even stronger, so limit or avoid red meat and processed meat. The New American Plate guidelines advise keeping red meat intake to less than 18 ounces per week. Another way to look at it: Include 3-ounce servings of red meat in only six of your 21 weekly meals.
Countless studies show that a predominantly plant-based diet is beneficial in preventing obesity and many chronic diseases. In addition to helping to prevent cancer, the AICR says a diet based mostly on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans can help prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke. It can also keep your weight in a healthy range.
The Science Behind It All
According to the AICR, vegetables and fruits supply vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that protect the body’s cells from damage by cancer-causing agents. Phytochemicals are compounds found only in plants and include carotenoids, flavonoids, and saponins.
Carotenoids are antioxidants that subdue free radicals that damage our DNA. Lycopene, a type of carotenoid, is found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, and watermelon. Lutein, another type of carotenoid, is found in leafy vegetables like spinach and collard greens.
Flavonoids decrease inflammation and impede the growth of cancer cells. Anthocyanin, a type of flavonoid, is found in strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries. Quercetin, another type of flavonoid, is found in apples, pears, and green tea.
Saponins, which are found in whole grains and beans, help control cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels and may prevent the proliferation of cancer cells.
Vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (compounds produced by plants such as the familiar beta carotene or folic acid) provide greater benefits when they are consumed together, so variety is important to a cancer-fighting diet. The New American Plate encourages trying new foods, new flavor combinations, and new recipes.
Plant foods have low caloric density. Caloric density is the average amount of calories in one ounce or one gram of a food. Fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, creamy dressings, and high-fat snack foods have high caloric density. According to Livestrong.com, “The less fat and more water a food has, the lower its caloric density. For instance, a gram of vegetables has a far lower caloric density than a gram of pasta.”
Foods with low caloric density can be consumed in a larger volume for the same amount of calories, making you feel fuller with less.
The New American Plate guidelines recommend consuming five servings of vegetables and fruits each day. A standard serving of vegetables or fruit is usually only half a cup, so it’s much easier to reach five servings than you’d think. Slice half a banana onto your morning cereal, eat carrots and celery sticks for an afternoon snack, top grilled fish with a mango salsa, and you’re well on your way.
The guidelines also include six to eight servings of whole grains such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, whole-grain breakfast cereal, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and legumes such as peas and dried beans.
Challenges of the New American Plate
Incorporating new eating habits isn’t easy, so don’t overwhelm yourself with a sudden and complete change. Hieb says making small, gradual changes is more effective over the long term.
A more plant-based diet may increase food costs, but meal planning and stocking your kitchen with a combination of fresh, frozen, canned, and shelf-stable plant-based foods “can help minimize cost and ensure availability to healthy food choices throughout the week,” Hieb says.
Dining out presents its own challenges to eating well. Portions have ballooned over the years, and plate sizes have also increased. Look for meals that follow the New American Plate guidelines, i.e., those in which meat is not the main component. “Choose meals with limited breading, sauces, and gravies, or share a meal,” Hieb advises. Or box up half of your meal as soon as it arrives at the table. And “don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, such as substituting salad for french fries,” she adds.
Educate yourself about portion sizes. We tend to underestimate how much food we eat. Measure out a serving size of your favorite foods to learn what a single serving looks like. For example, a serving of pasta, rice, or cooked cereal is half a cup, which looks like a rounded handful for an average adult. A serving of meat, poultry, or seafood is about the size of a deck of playing cards.
The New American Plate isn’t restrictive or complicated. The AICR believes, “It’s a fresh way of looking at what you eat every day.”
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