Plate model – a practical guide

Portion control and eating a variety of wholesome foods are important when considering a healthier way of eating. In South Africa, we are often guilty of piling our plates, firstly with too much food and often with too many starchy side dishes, especially at a braai.

Keep it balanced

Is there an easy way to make eating in moderation and with a good enough variation of foods a way of life? Yes, indeed. Use this model to manage and control the portion sizes of the different food groups you and your family eat every day. By dividing the plate into starches, vegetables, proteins and fats, it is easy to determine how much of each food we should eat.

Eating a variety of healthy foods in the correct quantities is the aim. This will provide our bodies with enough nutrients – an important step towards a healthy way of eating. This practical model makes it easier to plan balanced family meals (for anyone older than 2) with the ideal portions. The focus is to have a balanced plate of food and not, for instance, too much starch or fatty foods. Rather increase the portion of non-starchy veg and have a moderate portion of the other foods. The recipes on this website each indicate the amount of portions it serves – use this as a guide to know how big a portion of each recipe should be.

Starches

Starch is a carbohydrate-rich food. Carbohydrates (carbs) are the main source of energy for our body to function properly. It provides enough fibre to support our digestive system. Carbs easily fill you, but need to keep you feeling full for longer

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Refined carbs cannot sustain your energy levels as well as unrefined carbs, therefore these should be limited in both meals and snacks. Wholegrain and unrefined starches provide additional health benefits and nutrients important for a healthy body. Unrefined carbs are known for having a low GI. Which means they maintain a gradual release of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream and keep you fuller for longer. This limits the constant need to nibble on something in between meals. Good examples are wholewheat bread and brown rice although portion control is still important.

The combination of more than one type of starch, e.g. potatoes and bread, at a braai or other meal, easily contributes to eating too many carbohydrates. If you need to lose weight or avoid gaining weight, as part of your healthier lifestyle, cutting down on portions of excess carbs will make a big difference. An active person with a normal body weight can enjoy a slightly bigger portion of carbs, as long as it is burnt as energy. Balancing starch, protein and veg is important for every meal.

One quarter of your plate or about the size of your fist is the recommended starch portion size for meals. Preferably only eat one carb at a meal, rather than combining them, and fill your plate with non-starchy, low-carb veggies. Remember to keep the portions small when you do decide to dish up more than one carb to stay within the ideal portion size. Examples of starch include rice, potatoes, pasta, bread, cereals, porridge, mealie pap, rotis or samp. Starchy vegetables like potatoes, butternut, sweet potatoes and mealies also count as carbs. Always make the best choice and prepare these in a healthy way.

Fruit & vegetables

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Fill the largest portion of your plate with non-starchy veg and/or some fruit. Non-starchy vegetables are low in energy, but high in nutritional value. These veggies are rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and other nutrients. When prepared in a healthy way they don’t lead to weight gain. It’s recommended to enjoy some of the veg and fruit in the day, raw. Make your plate appetising by adding a variety of veg with different colours, textures and tastes. If you are familiar with the South African tradition of a seven colour Sunday lunch, it’s a great example of enjoying a variety of fresh ingredients in one meal.

Avoid serving fresh ingredients with sauces and dressings high in hidden fat or sugar. These sauces and dressings can increase the total energy of your meal and have a significant effect on your weight. Keep in mind that fruit does contain natural sugars, so manage your portions per day.

Protein

Our bodies need protein to repair any damaged tissue, grow properly and function well. Proteins are also important building blocks for muscles. The recommended protein portion size for a meal is the size of the palm of your hand or a quarter of the plate. Good choices are meat, fish, chicken and turkey, eggs, beans, lentils, soya and cheese. Choose lean cuts of meat and remove any visible fat or skin before cooking or braaiing.

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Fats

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Many people believe we should avoid fats, but it is important to know that our bodies do need healthy fats as a valuable source of energy and to function well. Fats are important to help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin A, D, E, and K. Although fats are important, we should not eat too much, as fats are very high in energy (kilojoules) that could lead to weight gain. Fats to limit are saturated like animal fats, and trans fats like in some commercially baked products. Rather choose healthy fats from nuts, avocado, olives, seeds and oily fish. Removing fat from meat or making sure that excess fat cooks out when braaied over the coals, is another way to reduce the amount of fat that will be in the meal.