MyPlate: The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Eating (No Calorie Counting Required!)

Medically Reviewed

A re fad diets bringing you down? There’s no need to stress over the scale anymore. Eating healthy without the hassle doesn’t require counting calories, calculating macronutrients, or buying pricey prepackaged superfoods or meal subscription services.

Turns out you can boost your energy, lift your mood, ward off chronic disease, and trim your waistline all at once, simply by taking advantage of a tool that the federal government offers for free online: MyPlate.

If you’re confused about what constitutes a healthy diet, we don’t blame you. We live in a world where food fights, even among trusted nutrition professionals, have become the norm. Folks are quick to glorify or vilify foods, debating naysayers as if they’re in competing political parties. Consider the buzz around polarizing diets that deprive you of foods you thought were nutritious (fruit on the keto diet, grains on the paleo diet, or beans on Whole30), and just try to keep your head from spinning!

It’s clear this way of thinking isn’t getting us anywhere.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, more than one in three adults are considered overweight, and more than two in five (42.4 percent) are considered obese. Meanwhile, 37.3 million Americans have diabetes — the majority have type 2 diabetes — and 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes each year, according to the American Diabetes Association. Furthermore, heart disease remains the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States and accounts for one in four deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Diet plays a role in your risk of developing all these diseases, and fortunately, MyPlate can help take the guesswork out of staving them off. If you’re looking for the easiest healthy eating plan to help you meet your goals without the fuss, MyPlate may be just the plan you’ve been searching for. That’s because it:

  • Uses a simple visual to help you fill your plate no matter where you eat
  • Makes sure you eat enough fruits and vegetables (and get plenty of vitamins and minerals as a result)
  • Encourages you to get enough lean protein without overdoing it
  • Can accommodate vegetarian, vegan, and other diets
  • Decreases your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity

Read on for a detailed description of MyPlate, how to use it, and even how to overcome its weaknesses.

What Is MyPlate, and Why Did the USDA Create It?

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MyPlate is a visual representation of a healthy way to fill your plate at each meal. As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, MyPlate focuses on increasing fruit and vegetables at mealtime by encouraging you to fill half your plate with these antioxidant sources. The model calls for filling the remaining two quarters with lean protein and grains (preferably whole grains). It’s all about creating nutritional balance.

Obviously, this makeup is dramatically different from how many restaurants create their meals. And if you cook at home, your plate may not look this way either. But there’s good reason to change that. A study published in April 2019 found that adherence to MyPlate is just as effective for weight loss, reduced waist circumference, and providing a feeling of fullness as calorie counting. This means that MyPlate could prove to be a much easier, but just as useful, tool for weight loss.

There’s lots of other scientific support for the MyPlate model, as well. A study published March 2021 in Circulation, for instance, followed more than 108,000 people for about 30 years. The study found that eating the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables decreased mortality risk during that time. Similarly, a study published in July 2020 in BMJ?found that the more whole grains participants ate (as recommended by MyPlate) the lower their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Those who ate the most whole grains had a 29 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate the least.

Why the Food Pyramid Was Swapped Out for MyPlate

The Food Pyramid, which was used in the United States from 1992 through 2011 as both the Food Guide Pyramid and My Pyramid, divided foods into groups and gave us an idea of how many servings from each food group we should have each day. While this was helpful information, many people found the Food Pyramid difficult to apply in everyday life. “The previous Food Pyramid was too confusing for most Americans to follow, and lacked information on portion sizes for each of the food groups," says Kristen Smith, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the founder of 360 Family Nutrition in Atlanta.

As a result, the USDA revisited its approach and devised MyPlate, which aims to provide better guidance. “While MyPlate provides much of the same information as the Food Pyramid, providing a visual that people can apply to their everyday lives allows for the information to be more practical and useful as people go about their day,” says Jackie Haven, RD, the deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Alexandria, Virginia.

How to Interpret MyPlate, and the Foods You’ll Find in Each Group

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Fruit Should Make Up Slightly Less Than ? of Your Plate (1.5 to 2.5 Cups Daily)

When it comes to fruit, canned varieties and 100 percent fruit juice count toward your intake, but MyPlate and registered dietitians alike recommend choosing fruits in their whole, unprocessed form as much as possible. Juicing strips the beneficial fiber from fruit, reducing it to a sugary drink that can cause blood sugar spikes and weight gain. Not to mention that many commercial juices contain added sugar.

Here are some examples of fruit to focus on:

Vegetables Should Make Up at Least ? of the Plate (2 to 4 Cups Daily)

Vegetables are a great addition to any meal because they’re packed with the vitamins and minerals your body needs to flourish, including bone- and muscle-supporting potassium; but did you know that the best way to enjoy them is by having lots of different kinds during the day and week? That’s because all vegetables have a different balance of vitamins and minerals, so the more varieties you eat, the more you’ll be covering your nutritional bases.

  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Leafy greens (such as kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach, etc.)
  • Lettuce
  • Romaine
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Beans and legumes
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • White potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumbers
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Squash

Lean Protein Should Make Up ? of Your Plate (About 5 to 7 Ounces Daily)

As with vegetables, a diet with a variety of lean protein sources gives your body a broader range of the valuable nutrients it needs, notes the USDA. Lean protein sources are lower in fat and calories and include plant-based proteins, such as beans and tofu, as well as meat, poultry, and fish, such as 93 percent lean ground beef or turkey and skinless chicken breast.

  • Beans/legumes
  • Edamame, tofu, tempeh, seitan
  • Nuts (such as walnuts, pecans, and almonds) and seeds (such as sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds)
  • Eggs
  • Fish (such as trout, salmon, tilapia, and tuna)
  • Boneless, skinless chicken
  • Lean ground turkey (93 percent lean)
  • Lean cuts of beef and pork (in moderation)

Grains Should Make Up ? of Your Plate (5 to 10 Ounces Daily, at Least ? From Whole Grains)

All grains count, but whole grains (those in their most natural and unprocessed state) provide the most fiber, vitamins, and minerals. As a result, MyPlate recommends getting at least half of your grains from whole grains, but more than half is even better!

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Farro
  • Oats or oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-grain bread (look for whole-grain flour as the first ingredient listed)
  • Whole-grain cereal (look for whole grains as the first ingredient listed)
  • Whole-grain crackers (look for whole grains as the first ingredient listed)

Aim for 1 Serving of Dairy per Meal (3 Cups Daily)

Dairy provides loads of protein, calcium, and other minerals, such as iodine, and it can be a nutritious addition to a healthy diet. Choose fat-free and low-fat (1 percent) varieties as often as possible. That’ll help cut down on saturated fat intake. According to the American Heart Association, replacing foods high in saturated fat with foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help boost your heart health. According to MyPlate, about 90 percent of Americans don’t get enough servings of dairy to meet their nutritional needs each day.

If you’re a lover of plant-based milks (besides soy), you may be wondering why they aren’t featured on MyPlate. Unfortunately, many plant-based milks do not provide the same nutritional benefits (specifically in terms of protein, calcium, and vitamin D) as dairy and soy milks. For this reason, they are not recommended on MyPlate. But it’s important to note that new plant-based milks come to market all the time, and MyPlate guidelines are reviewed only periodically. So there is the chance that additional plant-based milk products will be added in the future if they meet the nutritional standards set forth by MyPlate.

  • Fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk
  • Fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) plain yogurt
  • Fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) cottage cheese
  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Soy milk

Try to Use Liquid Oils Daily

All fats and oils are not created equal! You’ll want to include healthy fats, like those listed here, as often as you can in your meals. This amount includes any oil you might add to your food! (Note that coconut oil is not considered as healthy as the oils below, because it is 90 percent saturated fat, according to Harvard Health Publishing.)

Cut Back on Added Sugars

It’s not just what you put on your plate that matters — what you leave off can be just as important. That’s why MyPlate?recommends cutting back on the added sugars in your diet as much as possible. It's no small feat, given how regularly sugar is added to the food supply. From coffee beverages to tomato sauce, keeping an eye on your added sugar intake means reading ingredients lists and nutrition facts labels (at least in the short term). MyPlate also recommends drinking more water in place of beverages that are packed with added sugar such as soda, sports drinks, and lemonade. Enjoying a piece of fruit in place of sugary desserts like cake or cookies (or splitting a traditional dessert with a friend or loved one if you need that decadent treat) can also help reduce the amount of added sugar you get from your diet.

5 Smart Tips for Success With MyPlate

What Are the Limitations of MyPlate, and How Can You Make Up for Them?

Nutrition experts at the USDA are always working to improve how they translate nutritional science into clear recommendations for the general public. MyPlate is an improvement on the Food Pyramid, but experts say the approach still falls short. Some even speculate that MyPlate is intentionally vague in some areas because of pressure from large agricultural conglomerates. Here are seven ways in which MyPlate misses the mark.

1. MyPlate Doesn’t Show You How to Choose Healthy Fats

There are good fats and there are bad fats, but the MyPlate visual doesn’t distinguish between them. In fact, the MyPlate image doesn’t account for fat at all. And that’s a problem. Butter, cheese, and certain oils (like coconut) pack in saturated fat — which isn’t the healthiest for your ticker — but avocado, fish, and other oils (like olive) offer monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat — which are heart healthy.

Then there’s trans fat. It can throw off healthy cholesterol levels in a serious way, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Trans fat is so bad that it’s no longer legal in the United States: The?U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implemented a nationwide ban that prevents food manufacturers from adding it to their foods after June 2018.

In any case, if you don’t know the difference between the various fats or how much you’re supposed to have, you may nosh on the wrong kinds and harm your health.

It’s important to work with your healthcare team to identify which fats are best for your health goals, and also figure out how much total fat you need in your diet.

2. There Aren’t Clear Guidelines on Specific Healthy Foods, Period

Forget about fat; MyPlate doesn’t tell you which foods are best to reach for in any category. That can be a problem if you want the biggest nutritional bang for your buck. While variety is crucial for avoiding nutrient deficiencies (take that as permission to change up your weekly desk salad!), certain foods pack in more nutrients than others yet still fit in the defined categories of MyPlate. Think of it this way: Because MyPlate doesn’t tell you grilled salmon contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and less saturated fat, than fried chicken, you might think you have the green light to fill one-quarter of your plate with said fried chicken. But that move may increase your risk of heart disease, according to preliminary research released in August 2021. That said, filling half your plate with whole fruits and veggies is always a good bet, especially considering most Americans aren’t getting enough of these foods — fewer than 1 in 10 of us, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More on how to pick the healthiest foods by category later.

3. The Approach Doesn’t Show You How to Snack Smart

Maybe you aren’t a snacker. But if you are, MyPlate won’t help you make healthy food choices between meals. “The MyPlate visual focuses on how to create a balanced plate at mealtime, and less on what to include at snacktime,” Smith says.

The result? You might choose unhealthy, too-big snacks. Or, you may forgo snacks altogether because you think MyPlate doesn’t recommend them. The reality is, when chosen wisely, snacks are 100 percent part a healthy diet. And when well timed and selected, they may even help you get the nutrients your body needs to function at its best, suggests a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Later in this story, we’ll help fill that void by giving you some ideas on healthy snacks to curb your hunger between meals.

4. MyPlate Doesn’t Tell You What Size Plate to Use for Portion Control

Plate size has ballooned in the past few decades, and waist sizes have followed suit. A past study found that people fill their plates no matter the size, and that means significantly more food (and calories) on a large dinner plate than on a salad plate. As a result, if your platter’s too big, you may overdo it, and that can lead to weight gain even when you’re making healthy choices. “People may follow the MyPlate method, but use larger plates, or stack food higher on a plate,” says Smith. Most registered dietitians recommend exchanging a dinner plate for a salad plate. Salad plates tend to be about 8 to 9 inches in diameter, the size of an average dinner plate in the 1960s!

5. MyPlate Doesn’t Differentiate Between Starchy and Nonstarchy Veggies

Yes, potatoes are a veggie, but your body processes them differently from leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Indeed, your body treats starchy veggies, including potatoes, like grains. Starchy veggies are mostly made up of carbohydrates, meaning that when your body digests them, they break down into glucose, which raises your blood sugar level. That’s not a big problem if you enjoy them in moderation, but if you fill half your plate with them — well, you see where we’re going.

Keep in mind that stable blood sugar is especially important for people with diabetes, so be extra careful about portions if you're in this group. Most registered dietitians recommend counting starchy veggies as a starch or carb if you’re managing this disease (and even if you’re not).

MyPlate doesn’t explain any of this, which may lead you to think you can fill your plate with starches such as corn and peas. In this guide, we’ll show you how to attain some balance with your veggie picks.

6. MyPlate’s Precision Can Feel Overwhelming if You Don’t Cook

If you’re not an aspiring Top Chef, MyPlate may seem daunting. This is where planning meals ahead of time can come in handy. If you know what you’re going to eat not just today, but for the next few days, you’ll be more likely to use up that variety of ingredients at a handful of meals, rather than having to come up with unique combinations at each meal that satisfy all the criteria. Plus, by taking advantage of meal planning, you’ll know what’s for dinner and be less likely to grab last-minute takeout on the way home.

While we all recognize that fast food isn’t ideal for nutrition or weight loss, for those with hectic schedules (aka most of us), a trip to a fast-food or takeout joint is sometimes a necessary evil. Alas, MyPlate gives no guidance for how to best approach these eating situations.

And do you enjoy dessert now and again or fancy a piece of birthday cake? There’s also no guideline for how to fit in the occasional treat.

7. This Model Doesn’t Fill Your Plate for You

Regardless of how well you understand MyPlate, it is still up to you to fill your plate with healthy foods. Knowing what you’re “supposed” to do doesn’t always translate to actually doing it. Fortunately, we’ll give you an idea of how to make it work.

A Broad Look at a Single Week of Healthy Eating

The following recommendations are for one average adult for one week. Keep in mind that actual needs will vary by age and sex.

Fruits 14 pieces of fresh fruit, 14 cups of berries or frozen fruit, or a combination of the two

Vegetables 21 cups of vegetables of your choice

Grains 56 ounces (oz); 1 oz roughly equals ? cup cooked grain, 1 cup cold cereal, or 1 slice of bread.

Protein 42 oz meat, poultry, seafood, or meat substitute of your choice

Dairy 21 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy

Oils 1 cup or less (don’t forget to count the fat already in your food)

A 7-Day Balanced Meal Plan With Foods Based on MyPlate

Keep in mind that MyPlate is a general guide to filling your plate, but the real goal is to eat a variety of healthy foods that can help you to meet your overall nutritional goals for the day and week.

Some people don’t mind a serving of veggies with their breakfast, and if that’s the case with you, go for it! But if oatmeal with a side of carrot sticks isn’t really your thing, don’t sweat it. Enjoy fruit with your breakfast and pump up the veggies at lunch, dinner, or snack time to make up the difference.

Similarly, if a piece of fruit doesn’t fit the meal you’re having for lunch or dinner, save your fruit serving for a snack or enjoy it as a healthy dessert option after your meal. “A lot of people look at MyPlate and take it literally for every eating occasion, assuming that each time they eat, their plate must exactly resemble the five food groups as they are on MyPlate,” says Haven. “That is not the case.”

A Comprehensive Grocery List for Your Healthy-Eating Meal Plan

To boost your health, shop for the following.

Fruit

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Berries (frozen if out of season)
  • Cherries (frozen if out of season)
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums

Vegetables

  • Bell peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Corn, frozen
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce (the darker the better)
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Potatoes (small)
  • Sweet potatoes (small)
  • Tomato soup, low-sodium
  • Tomatoes
  • Vegetable soup, low-sodium

Grains

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Farro
  • Old-fashioned or steel-cut oats
  • Popcorn kernels (home-popped)
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Whole-wheat bread
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Whole-wheat tortillas

Protein

  • Beans (black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas)
  • Chicken (skinless)
  • Edamame
  • Eggs
  • Hummus
  • Lentils
  • Nut and seed butters (almond, cashew, peanut, and sesame seed)
  • Pork loin
  • Salmon
  • Tofu
  • Trout
  • Tuna, canned in water
  • Veggie burger

Dairy

  • Fat-free or low-fat cottage cheese
  • Fat-free or low-fat kefir
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk
  • Fat-free plain yogurt
  • Reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • Reduced-fat cheese stick

Healthy Fats

  • Avocado and avocado oil
  • Canola oil
  • Olive oil
  • Olives
  • Safflower oil
  • Walnuts

Herbs and Spices (Any and All)

Other Beverages

Day 1

Breakfast Whole-grain cereal with fat-free or low-fat milk topped with banana and walnuts

Lunch ? tuna sandwich with avocado on whole-wheat bread with a side salad and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Snack Carrot sticks with hummus

Dinner Stir-fry with veggies, tofu, garlic, and brown rice; a glass of kefir

Day 2

Breakfast Fat-free plain yogurt topped with berries (sweeten with a natural sweetener such as stevia, if desired), and a slice of whole-grain toast topped with peanut butter

Lunch Low-sodium vegetable soup with whole-grain crackers; a peach and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Snack Reduced-fat cheese stick and a plum

Dinner Salmon with a honey ginger glaze, broccoli, and a small baked sweet potato

Day 3

Breakfast One egg (any style), whole-grain toast with almond butter, a pear, and fat-free plain yogurt

Lunch Chicken and veggie wrap on a whole-wheat tortilla and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Snack Apple slices with peanut butter

Dinner Large salad topped with grilled chicken, ? cup barley, and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk and a square of dark chocolate

Day 4

Breakfast Old-fashioned oats topped with apple slices and cinnamon, and a side of low-fat cottage cheese

Lunch Mason jar salad with black beans, corn, and shredded cheddar dressed with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and herbs such as turmeric

Snack Air-popped popcorn with a piece of fruit

Dinner Roasted pork loin with fennel and roasted carrots and quinoa and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Day 5

Breakfast Yogurt parfait with plain, fat-free yogurt, cherries, and granola

Lunch Bunless veggie burger on a bed of lettuce with a pear and a glass of kefir

Snack Steamed edamame with a dash of sea salt

Dinner Roasted chicken with carrots, onions, and potatoes and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Day 6

Breakfast Veggie frittata with basil and a slice of whole-grain toast and an orange

Lunch Low-sodium tomato soup with ? grilled cheese sandwich on whole-grain bread, an apple, and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Snack Celery sticks with peanut butter

Dinner Baked trout with tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms over farro and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Day 7

Breakfast Overnight oatmeal made with old-fashioned oats, fat-free or low-fat milk, and raspberries, with a hard-boiled egg

Lunch Veggie and hummus wrap with an apple and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

Snack Red pepper sticks with yogurt dip

Dinner Stuffed peppers with seasoned ground turkey, brown rice, veggies, and a glass of fat-free or low-fat milk

A Final Word on Using MyPlate to Eat a Healthier Diet

There is no better benefit than feeling better and living a healthy life as a result of using MyPlate as your guide. Plus, “The MyPlate symbol is just the ‘start button’ of a wealth of materials,” says Haven. “MyPlate and its accompanying resources at ChooseMyPlate.gov provide a whole suite of helpful tips and tools for Americans of every age and stage of life.” While it may not be an easy (or perfect) journey, it is one that is well worth the effort. Even if you can’t perfectly match all the recommendations set forth by MyPlate, take a look at the guide and select one healthy change that you can make and stick with. As Haven says, “MyPlate provides useful tips on how to make small, meaningful changes people can enjoy and that work for them.” You can feel good knowing that you’ve taken a step in the right direction, no matter how large that step may be.