Healthy diets come in all shapes and sizes. Discover how easy it is to eat healthy.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

A healthy eating plan can be illustrated in many ways. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a dinner plate, called MyPlate, to encourage people to make healthy food choices.

Many other healthy diets are represented by food pyramids. These include the Asian, Latin American, Mediterranean, and Vegetarian diet pyramids, as well as the Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid, just to name a few. These graphics reinforce the choices that are the foundation of a healthy diet.

Symbols, such as a pyramid, illustrate how the pieces of a healthy diet fit together. The base of the pyramid is typically made up of foods that should be the bulk of your healthy diet. In contrast, foods you should eat in smaller amounts or less frequently are shown in the smaller sections of the pyramid.

The same principle applies to the dinner plate — half of the plate consists of what should be the bulk of your diet.

Of course, no single food provides all of the nutrients that your body needs, so the idea is to eat a variety of foods from each group to get all the necessary nutrients and other substances that promote good health.

Whether in pyramid or plate form, most healthy eating plans emphasize the following:

  • Eating more plant foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Choosing lean protein from a variety of sources
  • Limiting sweets and salt
  • Controlling portion sizes
  • Being physically active

Although most healthy diets are built on the same general principles, there are key differences that reflect dietary preferences, food availability and cultural eating patterns. For example, the Latin American Diet Pyramid might mention tortillas and cornmeal, whereas the Asian Diet Pyramid might include noodles and rice.

Other differences include:

  • Food groups. The food groups among healthy-eating plans vary somewhat. For example, some versions have plant-based proteins — soybeans, beans and nuts — in a separate group from animal proteins like meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. This is because some diets limit or exclude animal proteins entirely.
  • Serving recommendations. Healthy-eating plans also vary in the recommended servings of each food group. The Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid, for example, recommends a daily number of servings from each food group. Other plans offer more-general guidelines, such as eating particular foods at every meal, or on a weekly or monthly basis.

To see how your eating habits match up to these healthy eating plans, keep a food diary for several days. Then compare how much of your diet comes from the various food groups. You may be surprised by the results.

To eat healthier, start with gradual changes, such as eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and limiting fats and sweets.

Here are a few more tips to help you adopt healthier eating habits:

  • Choose a variety of foods. In addition to choosing foods from each food group, also choose a variety of foods from within each food group. This ensures that you get all of the calories, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber you need. Choosing a wide range of foods also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting.
  • Adapt the plan to your preferences. For example, a serving of grains doesn't only mean a slice of bread. It can be wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, grits, bulgur, cornmeal muffins or even popcorn. If you need to avoid milk because of lactose intolerance, try yogurt (lower in lactose) or fortified soy milk instead.
  • Combine foods any way you like. For example, you might make a meal of tortillas (grain group) and beans (meat and beans group). Or you could top your fish with fruit salsa or serve steamed vegetables over pasta. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Remember to be creative and go for good taste. A variety of healthy eating plans are available, so why not try a few on for size? You can explore the world's cuisines and improve your diet at the same time.

Jan. 14, 2016