Ditch the Post-Holiday Detoxes: Get Back to Basics by Building a Better Plate!
If you haven't seen the advertisements already, they're bound to be aplenty soon. You know, those ads and influencer posts about "21-day detoxes" "juice and smoothie cleanse challenges," "diets to undo your holiday eating," etc. The results these plans promise can be enticing because they appeal to the shame or guilt we may feel from indulging a bit more over the holidays. However, they can be damaging to both our mindset and health.
I'm not talking about elimination diets or other short-term therapeutic diets here. These strategic approaches to the removal of certain foods, for a designated period, can be beneficial, promote gut healing, and address other underlying health conditions. However, they should always be done under the guidance of a professional Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, are just short-term, and are still based on abundance, not restriction! We'll cover the goals, benefits, and strategy behind elimination diets and other therapeutic approaches in an upcoming blog post!
The diets and detoxes I'm talking about are those that call for extreme measures, are not evidence-based and are rooted in restriction. Although they may claim to be focused on wellness, they're truly just designed to sell you something or promote weightloss in an unsustainable way. From a mindset standpoint, these diets, detoxes, and challenges play off of our fears: they make us believe we did something wrong and need to undo it. They create the sense that we've ruined our health and gained an unreasonable amount of weight in just a week or two. Even worse, they lure us into believing that drastic measures are needed to get back on track.
From a physical health standpoint, these diets, detoxes, and challenges often involve restriction in one form or another- whether it be limiting calories or eliminating entire food groups simply for weight loss without your best health in mind. Yes, weight plays into our health, but it's not the only factor! In the short-term, this unguided restriction can negatively impact our health by altering our gut microbiome, creating the potential to aggravate or worsen some underlying health conditions (1). When taken to the extreme and done for long periods of time, significant calorie-restriction and unnecessary elimination of certain foods can even lead to malnutrition (2). This can hinder so many important functions, including our muscle function, immune system, digestive system, and can even have psychosocial impacts like depression and anxiety (2).
If you've ever done one of these "programs" before, don't feel ashamed. It can be hard to feel like you "failed" some nutrition standard you set for yourself over the holidays. It is difficult to not feel your best and want to improve your health ASAP. In this state of mind, these ads and posts are enticing and I've fallen victim to some of these in the past myself! I tried quite a few of them in my teenage years and early 20s: severe calorie restriction, "eat whatever I want so long as it fits in my macros," the SpecialK diet (what even was that really?!), bogus "resets" that sell you restrictive recipes and supplements, gym challenges not created by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, and plenty more.
Spoiler alert - none of the above brought me closer to better nutrition and health! They all started and ended the same way: I'd feel better for a few weeks but would eventually slip up because it was so restrictive, only to quit the whole thing after feeling awful about "failing." A couple of months would go by and I'd find some other "plan" that would finally be "the one," only for the same pattern to repeat itself. I have a feeling I'm not alone here otherwise new versions of these "fixes" wouldn't keep coming up every year!
The truth is, good nutrition isn't achieved with a 21-day diet reset or baseless restriction. Good nutrition is about building a solid foundation of knowledge and healthy habits so we can be mindful about the choices we make, given our own unique needs! It's about creating a sustainable strategy that's focused on an abundance. What better place to start than our plate?!
Building a balanced plate is not restrictive or a short-term approach, it's a strategy that will help you optimize your intake, long-term! Not to mention, it's something you get the opportunity to do at each meal. It's an important piece to the foundation of good nutrition and is something you can practice wherever you're eating. I've created this handy guide below that you can print out, screenshot, or copy into a note on your phone for easy reference. The more you practice building a better plate, the less you'll need this guide because it'll become second nature!
Let's break down these concepts and components to help you be on your way to building a better, balanced plate!
Aim to fill about 1/4 of your plate with lean protein. This includes leaner cuts of meat like skinless chicken breast and thighs, lean ground meats like turkey and beef, fish such salmon and halibut, vegetarian protein sources like tofu, beans, lentils, and so much more!
Aim to fill about 1/4 of your plate with complex carbohydrates. What makes a carbohydrate "complex?" To keep it simple, just think of it as a minimally refined source of carbohydrates. I like to say that the more it looks like it did when harvested, the less refined it is! This includes things like starchy vegetables such as potatoes and peas, whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, lentils, beans, fresh fruit, and more!
Aim to fill about 1/2 of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. On top of adding color, texture, and so much flavor, these guys bring two majorly important players to the table: fiber and micronutrients. What's a non-starchy vegetable you ask? A simple way to approach this is if it's a vegetable and it's not potatoes, corn, or peas, it's probably a non-starchy vegetable. Are there other starchy vegetables besides these three? Sure but we aren't trying to nitpick here, we're keeping things simple! Some examples include leafy greens, tomatoes, onions, cauliflower, and bell peppers, to name a few.
Depending on your individual needs, aim for about 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fats per meal. This can include the fat used to cook the ingredients in your meal, a dressing on a salad, or a fat-based dipping sauce such as avocado mayonnaise. I could write an entire blog post on what fats are healthier than others but to keep it simple, aim for mostly unsaturated fats (those that aren't saturated/solid at room temperature) that are minimally refined. Some great examples include extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, and seeds. You can also include fatty fruits like avocados and olives in here!
Go for Color and Variety
On top of the macronutrients we already discussed (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), our bodies need a slew of different micronutrients, better known as vitamins and minerals! Now, it's nearly impossible to track how much of each micronutrient you're getting in a meal so a great way to fulfill your needs is to eat a variety of foods! This means changing up what proteins, carbs, and fat you eat. When it comes to non-starchy vegetables, think about eating a rainbow of colors throughout the week. Variety also means preparing your foods in a variety of ways like grilling, roasting, blanching, etc. Creating this variety in what you eat and how you prepare it also comes with an added bonus: it can help you create a more robust and beneficial gut microbiome (3)! If you want more details on incorporating variety, check out our blog post on Adding Variety Without Adding Time or Stress.
Don't overthink it!
Keep things simple! Good nutrition doesn't have to be complicated-that just adds more stress and we all know what havoc stress can wreak on our digestive system! (If not, check out our blog on Improving Nutrition and Digestion through Stress Management and Self-Care). Run through your handy checklist provided above, reference the photo, and get to building your better, balanced plate!
The basics of a better, balanced plate are a fantastic template for most individuals. As we've discussed before though, everyone has different nutritional needs! If you're interested in taking things further and learning more about what your specific needs are, working with a Registered Dietitian might be the right next step for you! Complete our 1:1 Dietitian Nutrition Coaching Application today -Gretchen will reach out to schedule your complimentary call after you complete the coaching application.
1.) Zmora, N., Suez, J. & Elinav, E. You are what you eat: diet, health and the gut microbiota.Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol16, 35–56 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41575-018-0061-2
2.) Saunders J, Smith T. Malnutrition: causes and consequences. Clin Med (Lond). 2010;10(6):624-627. doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.10-6-624
3.) Bibbò S, Ianiro G, Giorgio V, Scaldaferri F, Masucci L, Gasbarrini A, Cammarota G. The role of diet on gut microbiota composition. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2016 Nov;20(22):4742-4749. PMID: 27906427.