pros and cons of the HARVARD PLATE

Hello everybody! Welcome back to my blog.

In today’s post I want to go deeper on a subject that we have already discussed; the famous ‘Harvard Plate”

For a broader guide to healthy eating first check out one of my most popular posts so far “The three must do’s to start being healthier number 1: Eating well”.

The Harvard Plate or Healthy Eating Plate is, in my opinion, the most representative form of nutritional advice. It describes eating through proportions rather than a fixed amount making it easier for the individual to adopt. It makes things more understandable for everyone whereas it’s difficult to calculate 70 g of protein and some people don’t know what “5 portions of fruit” means. 

Let’s start with the positives about the Harvard Plate. 

As we can appreciate, most of the plate is occupied by vegetables and fruits, and it explains that the more and the greater the variety and colours, the better. 

On the right side, we have the whole grains and the healthy protein, representing half of the plate. When it talks about the whole grains, it specifies that the refined grains should be limited. In my post “Fitness myth number 3: carbs are bad” I go through the difference between good and bad carbs in great detail. Check it out below!

Under the whole grains we have the healthy protein. It represents just one quarter of the plate, which I think is really positive, given that we have been mistakenly advised for a long time that we need a lot of protein in our diet. See how it clarifies what a healthy protein is: fish, poultry, beans, and nuts. The red meats and cheese should be limited, and the processed meats avoided. 

On the top left we have the healthy oils. On the top right the drinks, and I like the fact that there is no “drink 8 glasses of water per day” message anywhere. The amount of water we need every day will depend on numerous parameters. I also love that they count coffee and tea (with little to no sugar). If you want to know the benefits of drinking coffee, check out my post about it!

To finish a good job, they put a little person on the bottom left with the clear message in capital letters “STAY ACTIVE!”.

Now let’s get down to the negatives, from my point of view. 

The first thing that stands out to me is ‘What size is the plate?’ We can all agree on the fact that a plate can be very big or rather small, and this can lead to great confusion. In the past, the average plate measured around 17 cm, whereas these days the average plate measures more than 27 cm. Furthermore, the average size in Europe and America are very different, being around 22cm in Europe and 33cm in America, with 31cm the average plate in Australia. That 10 cm difference in diameter means the area of the plate in the USA is 2.25 times bigger than the area of a European plate. Given that the Harvard Plate was developed in the US, does it mean that if people follow this source in Europe, they’re not getting enough food?

Another thing to highlight is, how many times a day are we meant to have this distribution? The recommendation is to eat around 1g of protein per kilogram of weight (this is, if I am 55kg, I should be getting 55g of protein). It looks like, if we are to have three meals with the distribution that the Healthy Eating Plate advises (the number of meals generally recommended), we are going beyond this recommendation. As I mentioned before, we have mistakenly been told that we need a lot of protein in our diets. We need the right amount of protein, which will change depending on our physical activity, but we should not overdo it. 

The Harvard Plate is almost entirely covered by carbohydrates. Perhaps you didn’t know, but fruit and vegetables are full of them. They are necessary and good for you, but if you fill up your plate with them, you don’t need to complete it with more carbs from the whole grains. It’s much better to get the whole grain option rather than the refined option, but for most people, one time a day having these whole grains is more than enough (remember, this will change if you are very active). Probably this resource is giving people the freedom to eat a whole lot of pasta, rice, and bread, which might be one of the reasons why they can’t lose weight. By the way, one of the reasons we put on weight is because of the inflammation caused by certain foods.

As someone who has given up meat almost entirely, one question I must ask is: where are the eggs?

In a future post, I would like to debunk the myth that eggs are bad. Just to summarise, eggs are a good source of protein, as well as essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, D, E & K, iron, potassium, selenium, zinc and magnesium; all found in the yolk. Eggs have had very bad publicity because they contain fat, which has been the enemy of the diets and weight loss programs in the western world for a long time. The truth is, we need fat in our diet for several bodily functions. Without fat, our diet is not a complete diet.

In line with the previous item, it’s not clear to the reader that fats are present in the sources of protein, and they treat all the proteins the same way. Even though I love the fact that they put nuts and beans as a healthy protein resource, eating this proportion of nuts three times a day is rather insane. The recommendation of nuts per day is a handful. This recommendation is great, because our hand is proportional to our body, meaning that my husband will get more nuts in his diet than me. The reason behind this recommendation is the presence of fats. Fats are necessary and the fats we find in our nuts are healthy fats, but we shouldn’t eat too much. Even water is too much when we ingest it disproportionately. 

Eating my daily handful of nuts

When it comes to fats, there’s very little we know about them from the Harvard Plate. It might look like they are just in the oils category, but the truth is that they are everywhere. In fact, this nutritional advice (like many others) just talks about the trans fats. There is a thing or two we should start talking about when it comes to healthy and unhealthy fat, like the right balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fats, a type of healthy fatty acids. It’s found in fish. The omega-6 is another type of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. But did you know that the correct balance between these two types of fatty acids is one of the most important things in controlling the already mentioned inflammation? The ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 to consider someone very healthy is 1.5. In the western countries, the average ratio is 15 or more.  We are eating far more omega-6 fatty acids than is considered healthy, and not enough omega-3. Given that this omega-3 is found in fish, a lot of nutritionists worldwide recommend a supplement of omega-3 in a healthy diet. 

The last thing I want to address today is the little message in the bottom left that says, “stay active”. Like I said before, at least they mention the importance of staying active, but in my opinion it’s rather plain. Of course they are not entitled to give an expert exercise advice, that’s the job of a physical activity professional, but I think they could have made a little bit more of an effort: 30’ of physical activity every day, try to reach the 10,000 steps each day and stand up at least 1 minute per hour, as well as using your body to do the everyday chores (going to work, doing the shopping, etc) rather than going by car or public transport. 

It’s extremely difficult to make the perfect nutritional resource. The Australian diet is different to the multiple Mediterranean diets in many ways, as are the types of diets found in Asia. For this reason, I still think that the Harvard Plate is a useful source of information for the average person. Nonetheless, I will always encourage people to talk to an appropriate nutritionist (not Herbalife).

If you like what I am doing with this blog, please let me know with comments, reach out to me on social media or send me an email. Thank you very much and see you next week!

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