THE PLATE METHOD: a nutritionally balanced meal for vegans
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Where to Start?!
We get it. It can be SUPER overwhelming to know what kinds of foods to eat, what to combine, and how to make sure you're getting enough of what you need. Look: they don't make getting a degree in nutrition a 5-year program for no reason. There's a science to this. But who has time to figure out what nutrition specialists mean when they talk about foods being measured in portion sizes and grams? Don't worry. We've got you covered!
First, some background
Many countries have unique food plans created by governments or nutrition authorities to help their citizens ensure they are obtaining adequate nutrition for themselves and for their families. Each country's food plans is slightly different, but the overall guidelines are generally the same, with an emphasis on adequate fluids, fruits, vegetables, grains (preferably whole grains when possible), as well as protein, fat and calcium sources.
The following is an example of the recommended number of food servings per day, as can be found in the Canada's Food Guide, depending on the individuals age and gender.
Now this food guide is a wonderful tool to provide a detailed overview of the needs of of the average individual, but many people find it overwhelming. Some ask,
"Do I need to keep track of how many servings of each food group I eat everyday?"
And the answer put simply is: no. It might help to do it for a day or two to see what areas can be improved, but generally speaking most people are not counting the total servings of grains or vegetables they consume each day. So what's an easier way of trying to ensure your meals are nutritionally complete? Here's how...
The Plate Method
The Plate Method is a wonderful and effective tool that allows for simple visualization of how to organize food groups. The Plate Method below simplifies the portion sizes and outlines general food groups to include in a nutritionally balanced meal:
This isn't the first time a plate method has been used to compose a nutritionally balanced meal. Because it's such a visually appealing tool, many organizations have adopted the method. Here are some great examples that we've adapted for PUL's plate: + Canada's 'Eat Well Plate'
+ USA Government's 'ChooseMyPlate'
+ The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine's 'Power Plate'
+ Becoming Vegan's 'Vegan Plate'
Let's Break It Down: The Plate
FRUITS AND/OR VEGETABLES: 1/2 the plate
Benefits: I could go on about the benefits forever. Vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, reducing the risk of developing chronic illnesses and so on. The benefits are quite well known, so get 'em in any way you can.
Sources: any and all fruits and vegetables that are ideally local and in season, and most importantly that you enjoy! We recommend including some green veggies (bok choy, leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) and orange veggies (carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin) in there each day. And don't forget about the frozen fruit/veg: they are great, quick options to getting those servings on your plate in a jiffy.
Pro tip: aim for slightly more servings of vegetables than fruit, if possible. General guidelines are about 3-4 servings of fruit and 4-6 servings of vegetables daily.
GRAINS: 1/4 the plate
Benefits: provides a fantastic source of sustained energy (complex carbohydrates) and fibre.
Sources: oatmeal, rice, whole grain bread, wheat tortilla, whole grain pasta, quinoa, barley, millet, teff, amaranth, buckwheat.
Pro tip: aim for at least half of your daily grain servings to be whole grains for the added benefit of increased fibre!
PLANT-BASED PROTEINS: 1/4 the plate
Benefits: plant-based protein sources, fibre (both soluble and insoluble), and increases your satiation (keeping you full longer).
Sources: soy products such as tofu, tempeh and edamame, seitan, green peas, all beans, chickpeas, all lentils, split peas, and most veggie meat replacements. Other sources that are both protein and fat sources are anything in the nut and seed categories, such as hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and all forms of nut and seed butters.
Pro tip: don't be afraid to use canned beans and lentils to speed up meal prep time and ensure you get an adequate amount of this essential food group. Lentils cook much more quickly than beans if you're cooking from scratch, although soaking is always recommended to increase nutrient absorption (read more about that here). Add nuts and seeds as toppings to nourish bowls or salads to up that and healthy fat content even more.
Let's Break It Down: The Pillars
We developed these "three pillars" to ensure that in addition to the plate, you're getting an adequate variety of necessary nutrients for optimal health. If you don't get a chance to include it with your meal, not a problem! You can include on the side or as a snack too!
Why: whether it's a vegan or omnivorous diet, calcium rich foods can often be overlooked. Calcium is critical to the growth and maintenance of bone health throughout the lifespan, and food sources are always recommended before supplements. Read more about calcium here.
Recommendations: at least 2 servings of calcium-fortified plant-based milks and/or yogurts. Keep in mind that soy milk provides 7-8g of protein per cup (similar to that of cow's milk), whereas other plant-based milks do not offer this much protein. Try this in chai lattes, or in smoothies or oatmeals in place of water.
Vegan sources: fortified plant-based milks and yogurts such as soy, almond, cashew, coconut, etc. There are other sources beyond fortified plant-based dairy products that provide calcium such as leafy greens, tahini, and beans. These sources are not very rich-sources, but it's still wonderful to include as much of these foods as possible! Learn about more sources in the calcium article found here!
Why: fats are an essential part of a healthy diet and are integral to many functions in the human body. Essential omega-3 fatty acids are usually found in these types of foods, ad we want to make sure we're getting enough! Read more about omega-3 here.
Recommendations: consume healthy fats from whole food sources where possible, which offer fibre, vitamins and minerals as well. Oils can also be used, but in moderation.
Vegan sources: avocados, nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, cashews), seeds (such as sunflower, pumpkin, chia, hemp seeds, flax seeds), nut butters, olives, and coconuts (coconut flakes, coconut milk, coconut meat).
Vitamin D: depending on where you live, you may be able to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight. If not, it is recommended to consume fortified foods and/or supplement with 600-800 IU/day. This applies to both vegans and non-vegans. Read more about vitamin D here.
Let's venture into some PUL recipes that generally follow The Plate Method's recommendations. You'll notice that not all of them look exactly like our PUL Plate above, but they still contain the essential categories mentioned. You'll also notice the portions are not exact, but it's not about being perfect. It's a guideline! Use it to the best of your ability. These show you that you can mix up your recipes and still follow this guide. Let's take a look:
✓1/2 plate fruit: banana and mixed berries
✓1/4 plate grains: oats in the granola
✓1/4 plate plant-based protein: nuts and seeds in the granola
✓Calcium: soy yogurt
✓Fat: flaxseeds on top, nuts and seeds in the granola, oil in granola
Whether you're serving in a cup, bowl or plate... it doesn't matter! The guidelines apply much the same ☺
✓1/2 plate vegetables: spinach, tomato, cucumber, potato, cauliflower
✓1/4 plate grains: whole grain wraps
✓1/4 plate plant-based protein: hummus (made from chickpeas and tahini)
✓Fat: olives, avocado, tahini and oil (in hummus), oil to roast veggies
✓1/2 plate vegetables or fruit: eg. Brussel's sprouts, mangoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and greens, etc.
✓1/4 plate grains: eg. brown rice, quinoa
✓1/4 plate plant-based protein: eg. hummus, lentils, edamame, soy-based 'mock meats', beans, etc.
✓Fat: eg. olives, avocado, tahini and oil
✓1/2 plate vegetables: mushrooms, cabbage, carrot, arugula, bell peppers, onions, lime
✓1/4 plate grains: whole grain buns, rolled oats
✓1/4 plate plant-based protein: pinto beans, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews
✓Fat: cashews, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, oil
✓1/2 plate vegetables: mushrooms, broccoli, carrot, bean spouts, radish
✓1/4 plate grains: rice noodles
✓1/4 plate plant-based protein: tofu
The Bottom Line
By developing this plate and breaking it down, we're not trying to recommend you meticulously organize your plate in this exact order and become obsessed over specific percentages. In fact, if you look through PUL recipes, you'll notice that not all of them necessarily follow this plate method 100% of the time. And that's ok. For example, it may be that your breakfast is half fruit and half grains and some plant-based milk, like in this Breakfast Porridge.
The bottom line is that it's a visualization of a "template" for a well balanced meal. Using it as a guide will help you adapt it to the types of foods that are accessible and enjoyable for you. This way, it's practical, varied and more sustainable.
Additional References: (1) Davis, Brenda, and Vesanto Melina. "Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition." Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Book Publishing Company, 2014, pp. 431-437.
Want to Learn More? Read our previous nutrition article called ZINC » a vegan's guide, simplified
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Executive Assistant and Dietetic Student) & Sadia