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  • Writer's pictureAlexis Dawn Salima Gonzalez

Balance, Variety & Moderation

Using the Plate by Plate approach in eating disorder recovery and intuitive eating

What is the "perfect diet"? There are thousands of books, talk shows, and internet articles recommending their perfect diet. How often have you tried following one of these only to feel unbalanced, unsatisfied, or uninterested? The perfect diet might not exist but there are guidelines to help you feel balanced, satisfied, and excited about eating.

Dietitians recommend a healthful diet consisting of three components: balance, variety, and moderation. Try to keep these components in mind when planning a meal. What exactly do these words mean?

Let’s start with balance:

A balanced diet will consist of these food groups: starches (a type of carbohydrate), proteins, fats, produce, and an optional fun food. Diet culture’s rules for eating are typically to avoid or limit food groups.

Someone following a unbalanced diet might say the following:

“I don’t eat carbs so I can manage my blood sugar.”

“I’m avoiding fats because they’ll make me gain weight.”

“I can only have protein bars for snacks.”

A meal with all food groups present is likely to satisfy physical hunger for a longer period of time. Have you followed a low-carb diet and found yourself thinking about pasta all day? That’s likely because you’re unsatisfied with an unbalanced diet. When you plan your next meal, see if you can get protein, a starch, and a fat in it. Talk to your dietitian about the functions of macronutrients and why they’re so important.

NOTE: Unlike dieting, balanced eating requires flexibility. Although we strive to have all food groups present sometimes it doesn’t happen and that’s okay.

Then we add variety:

Variety is to choose different types of food from each food group. This component of meal planning ensures we can get all the vitamins and minerals produce can offer, we’re more satisfied with meals, and we don’t get sick of having the same food at every meal. Have you ever meal-prepped a 3-5 day lunch that had all food groups present but by the last day you were over it and tossed the lunch to order a sandwich and chips?

Your brain and body were looking to shake things up with something new!

To follow a diet is to follow a set of diet rules. An example of a diet rule is to only choose whole grains over refined wheat. Is it true that whole grains provide more fiber than refined? Yes. Does that mean there is no place for refined wheat options in our diets? Nope! It might mean that sometimes you choose brown rice and sometimes you choose white rice. (I prefer white rice in Asian and Latin dishes while brown rice is my preference in tofu-veggie bowls).

RDs recommend choosing a multitude of colors in your produce to have a chance of getting a wide range of nutrients.

An example of a colorful day of eating looks like:

Breakfast: Peanut butter on toast with blueberries

Lunch: Turkey sandwich with tomato slices and a side of carrots dipped in ranch dressing

Dinner: Beef and broccoli over rice

A diet is limited in variety when we only choose our safe foods. The phrase “safe food” is defined differently for each individual. Typically with disordered eating, a safe food is a food item that does not cause distress because it follows dieting rules. The food items that do cause distress can be called “fear foods” or “trigger foods”. It can feel quite overwhelming to break a rule. Talk to your dietitian about challenging fear foods or experimenting with new foods to broaden variety.

And now, moderation:

Now that you know what to choose . . . how much do you put on your plate? This is where moderation comes into play. Ugh, "moderation."

In a society plagued by diet culture, the recommendation to, “enjoy food in moderation” has been twisted into, “eat as little of this food as possible.” That’s not what moderation is about.

There are many ways to apply moderation in our diet.

Let’s think outside of the diet culture box. Have you ever finished a large meal and felt uncomfortably full? That might be your body telling you that the amount of food eaten was more than what was needed to satisfy hunger. Honestly, this is quite common. Unfortunately, it also leaves you feeling physically uncomfortable.

Mindful eating can be a wonderful tool to prevent discomfort from over-fullness. By eating mindfully, you can reduce your eating pace and give yourself time to notice fullness cues before feeling uncomfortable. Mindful eating is not an easy practice to do alone. Ask your dietitian about starting your own mindful eating practice to notice your fullness cues and finally enjoy your food.

plate by plate approach

Another way to practice moderation is to follow a 1/3rd plating method for portioning, often called the Plate by Plate approach. This approach is commonly used in eating disorder recovery and intuitive eating. Using a 10 inch plate, choose a starch, a protein, and a produce. Each of these items will fill up 1/3rd of your plate. If you cooked with fat (butter or oil) or if the protein is naturally fatty (beef, pork, chicken thigh, etc.) that can count as an item from the fats food group. To add fats, you can use a creamy or oil-based dressing to a salad, a spread of hummus on a pita, or nuts and seeds in your oatmeal.

Fun foods are always optional. Providing yourself the permission to eat these foods can do wonders for practicing moderation with them. What happens if you rarely allow yourself to have fun foods? Do you end up eating many servings of them and feeling sick or uncomfortable after? An experience that’s all too common.

Talk to your dietitian if you don’t trust yourself with fun foods and feel out-of-control around them. Remember, support is always available!


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