The 75% Plate Approach

healthy lifestyle

Contrary to common belief, health is more than just the absence of sickness or disease; it’s a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, which includes living a life of meaning and purpose.

More and more scientific evidence suggests the key to lifelong good health is “lifestyle medicine” – applying healthy behaviors in the areas of: nutrition, exercise, sleep and how we handle stress and social connections.

Caring for your body through good nutrition is one of the most important characteristics of a healthy, long life. And it’s a health improvement you can start making right away. In fact, you can practice it at your very next meal by using the Full Plate Living 75% Plate Approach.

At its core, the 75% Plate Approach encourages you to fill the majority of your plate (75% of it) with nutrient-dense foods that naturally contain fiber and water – fruits, vegetables, beans and cooked whole grains. The remaining 25% part of the plate is reserved for a serving of food that does not naturally contain both water and fiber. This could be whole wheat bread, pasta, nuts, grilled chicken, or even a cupcake.

We'll explain both the 75% and 25% parts of the plate below.

We recommend working your way up to consuming 40 grams of fiber a day as a goal. The 75% Plate Approach is a visual way to help you reach that goal.


The 75% Part of Your Plate

The four categories of fiber foods for the 75% part of your plate not only naturally contain fiber, but they’re also rich in water. It’s the fiber and water in these foods which help you feel full and stay full longer after eating a 75% plate meal. These foods are also good sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals your body needs to function well and stay healthy.

The 4 Categories of 75% Plate Foods:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Cooked Whole Grains – eaten in their whole form and cooked in liquid, like oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa

It isn’t necessary to have a fiber food from each category, but to help ensure variety and balance, it would be a good idea to have foods from at least three of the categories. For example, you could serve a chili made with onions, peppers and beans served over brown rice with a raw green salad.

Your goal is to fill 75% of your plate with some combination of foods from these four categories: fruits, vegetables, beans and cooked whole grains.

Do you have to stop at 75% of your plate? No. You could have meals that are 80%, 90% or even 100% filled with these high fiber and water foods.

Remember 75% plate foods are rich in water and fiber. Once characteristics of these foods are altered, they no longer have all the positive health benefits they hold in their original form.

There are a number of ways 75% plate foods can become 25% plate foods.

  • If the water is removed from foods, like dried fruits and vegetables
  • If they are packaged in sweeteners like syrup, honey, sugar or other processed sweeteners or in fats like cream, oil, butter, cheese or mayo
  • If they’re fried

The 25% Part of Your Plate

The 25% part of your plate is reserved for foods that do not naturally contain both fiber and a lot of water.

A common misconception about the 25% part of the plate is that foods in this area are “bad” foods. At Full Plate Living, there is no such thing as bad or forbidden foods. We understand that food has special meanings and memories, that each of us prefer various flavors, textures and aromas when it comes to food. And lastly, that based on where we live, our culture attaches some foods to special life events.

So while the foods in the 25% part of the plate might not be “bad” for us, they are foods that need to be enjoyed in moderation. These are also foods that you DO need to consider serving size when adding to your plate. That’s because 25% plate foods generally have little or no fiber, are higher in calories, fat, sugar and/or have been processed. The 25% part of the plate makes it easy to visualize the amount you’re eating so you don’t overeat these foods. (Go ahead, flip over the package and see what the serving size is for that particular food.)

Of course, we recommend making the healthiest choice as you consider what to put on the 25% of your plate. Some healthier options include: nuts, 100% whole grain bread, some vegetarian meat substitutes, baked chicken or fish, low-fat milks.

To reach the goal of enjoying a healthy, high-fiber diet, it is wise to make the healthiest 25% plate choices as often as possible.

Below are common foods put on the 25% of the plate. Some are healthy choices and some are not so healthy. As we said, there are no forbidden foods, but if you want to maximize your health, consider choosing the healthiest 25% choices.

Remember, the 25% plate foods are foods that do not naturally contain both fiber and water.

Here is a list of common 25% plate foods:

  • Oils, butters, margarines and creams
  • Dairy: milk, cheese, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream
  • All foods made from flours, regardless if they’re whole grains or not - breads, pastas, buns, muffins, cakes, pies, waffles, pancakes, crackers, chips, tortillas, taco shells, bagels, donuts, and any other baked items.
  • Meat: beef, pork, poultry, fish and seafood, etc
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Vegetarian meat substitutes
  • Desserts: cakes, pies, ice cream, cobbler, brownies, cookies, soufflés, etc.
  • All beverages with the exception of water, black coffee and unsweetened teas
  • All alcohol
  • Dried fruit
  • Sweetened canned fruit
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Processed sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave
  • All fried foods

What About Mixed Dishes?

It’s easy to figure out what goes in the 75% part of the plate when you have simple sides of steamed broccoli, brown rice, beans and chicken. The steamed broccoli, brown rice and beans would be your 75% part of the plate and the chicken your 25% part of the plate.

But what if the broccoli, brown rice, beans and chicken are all combined in a creamy casserole?

The rule of thumb is to eyeball how much of the dish actually contains natural fiber foods – those 75% plate foods. Besides casseroles, apply this rule of thumb to soups, stews, salads and one-pot meals.

  • If the dish is mostly 75% plate ingredients – vegetables, fruits, cooked whole grains or beans – treat it as a 75% plate food.
  • If the dish has just a few veggies, a bit of brown rice or beans but is mostly chicken and cream sauce, treat it as a 25% plate food.
  • If you’re making a one-pot meal and ¾ of the recipe ingredients are 75% plate foods and ¼ of the recipe are 25% plate foods, this will be a 75% Plate Approach meal.

Again, give it your best try to keep the 25% plate foods as just 25% of your plate and pile on the 75% ingredients – that’s typically the more challenging part to fill up.

Since it can be challenging to keep 25% plate foods as only 25% of a recipe, here are tips to help you:

  • Aim to use 1 tablespoon or less of oil in a recipe.
  • If a recipe has many 25% plate items, cut the amounts in half or just pick one or two of those foods.
  • Power Up the recipe by adding more 75% plate fiber foods to make the recipe more robust.
    • Double the veggies
    • Mix in a can of beans
    • Toss in a cup of your favorite cooked whole grain
    • Add fruit (this transforms salads)

The Key to 75% Plate Success

The key to success is to vary your 25% plate items just as much as you do your 75% ones. Keep in mind that this approach is not about perfection, but rather, making progress one step at a time, no matter how small the step.

Caring for your body with a high-fiber diet can be deliciously enjoyable rather than stressful, and the 75% Plate Approach is a tool to make it easier for you to do just that. Start by adding more of the 75% plate foods you like best to your meals and planning the 25% plate items you want at a meal.

For more strategies, examples and to start taking steps, begin one of the programs available in the free Full Plate Living Membership.

Full Plate Living is a small-step approach with big health outcomes. It's provided as a free service of Ardmore Institute of Health.

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