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posted: 8/18/2010 12:01 AM

Guide to the 'New American Plate' method of weight loss

Ask the Nutrionist

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Q. I love the New American Plate as a simple model for healthy eating. Does it matter how much of the two-thirds of your plate that is plant foods comes from vegetables?

A. Lots of people find the model developed by American Institute for Cancer Research, called the New American Plate, a helpful way to simplify messages about healthy meals that can promote a healthy weight, decrease cancer risk and support overall health.

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This simple model advises that each time you eat, make plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans) at least two-thirds of your plate, and animal protein (poultry, seafood and red meat) no more than one-third. The ideal proportion of plant foods within that two-thirds varies with individual nutritional needs and overall eating habits.

As long as they're not loaded with fat, most non-starchy vegetables are lower in calories than the same portion of grains (rice, pasta, bread), beans (like kidney and garbanzo beans and lentils) and even most fruits.

If you are trying to lose weight or have a low activity level that poses a challenge for weight maintenance, vegetables with no or little added fat as a major portion of the plate can be a great strategy. On the other hand, if you like to choose raw vegetables and fruits as snacks, need extra calories (for example, if you're very physically active) or are choosing meatless meals, then substantial portions of whole grains and beans may be important for you.

Look at how your current habits are working for you in promoting a healthy weight and in achieving the total amounts recommended for you in the MyPyramid Plan section of mypramid.gov. For more individualized assessment from a registered dietitian, go to eatright.org and click on "Find a Registered Dietitian."

Q. Are the chicken nuggets better than a burger at fast food restaurants?

A. Chicken offers the obvious advantage of helping you avoid the excess red meat (beyond 18 ounces a week) that increases risk of colon cancer. However, the smallest "adult" portion of chicken nuggets, usually 3.5 to 4 ounces (about five to eight pieces), is in many other ways comparable to a small hamburger.

The two choices are about equal in calories and protein, and nuggets are likely to be only about one gram lower in cholesterol-raising fats (saturated plus trans fats). Compared to the somewhat larger "single" or quarter-pound size burger, the chicken nuggets are much lower in calories and cholesterol-raising fat.

Sodium in chicken nuggets varies widely; some contain less than a condiment-loaded hamburger, while others are just as high or higher. Most fast food dipping sauces however can add anywhere from 150 to 800 mg of sodium.

But why limit yourself to these two options? A grilled (unbreaded) chicken sandwich is a healthier option. Because of the bun, calories are a little higher than the nuggets; but if you add fries to your chicken nugget order, the grilled chicken on a bun comes out lower in calories and saturated fat.

Some restaurants offer wraps made with grilled chicken, which may be lower in calories and higher in fiber than a sandwich on a white bread bun. Individual fast food restaurants may offer other healthier options, too.

There are two main issues to consider when you eat at a fast food restaurant: First, regardless of what you choose, portion control is vital. And second, with any of these options we are still left asking, "Where are the fruits and vegetables?" For a balanced meal, be sure to include a salad, fresh fruit or both.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its New American Plate program at aicr.org.

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