Calorie breakdown: What's on your plate?

Calorie breakdown: What’s on your plate?

Life Lessons

Calorie breakdown: What’s on your plate?

Figuring out which foods and how much of them you should eat, every day, can be tough. Ideal caloric intake depends on your height, weight and activity level, among other factors.

But you’ll be relieved to hear calorie counting isn’t essential. In fact, some expert sources don’t put any emphasis on it, including Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate, which instead suggests types of foods to eat and their relative portions: lean protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, healthy oils.

Still, if you have no idea where to start or if calorie ranges and serving sizes confuse you, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a handy interactive tool that helps. Plug in some details about yourself to get a general breakdown of the macronutrients – the nutrients that provide calories – that you need on any given day, along with sodium and sugar limits. You’ll also get food suggestions.

The tool relies on the U.S.D.A.’s latest dietary guidelines, MyPlate, which shares similarities with Healthy Eating Plate, arguably the best way to go for overall healthful eating. But My Plate includes dairy, whereas Healthy Eating Plate emphasizes healthful oils and looks a lot like the Mediterranean Diet, a standout among eating lifestyles.

This is the second installment of a new WorkWell series, Healthy Living Basics for Everyone. The sanely paced plan helps you with nutrition, exercise and lifestyle and includes a mental component that helps clarify goals and identify what might hold you back.

“The Mediterranean Diet (or way of eating) is not just healthy,” says Laurie Mitchell, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, who oversees Unum’s corporate wellness programs. “It’s a realistic way to eat for most people.”

A diet that is “healthy” and “realistic” earned its cred through the nutrients it includes and how simple it is to eat them. What might not seem simple is the difference between “nutrients” and “macronutrients,” mentioned a few sentences ago.

There are two types of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients (think “big”) are the nutrients our bodies need for energy: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each also has its own special role, noted below. What’s more, some foods have considerable amounts of more than one macronutrient (whole grains, beans). We’ll talk about micronutrients another day – though you’ll find some teasers in the descriptions below.


Helps muscles, hair and other tissues grow, heal and maintain themselves. Made up of 10 essential amino acids you must get from dietary intake and another 10 nonessential amino acids your body can produce.

Healthy sources: seeds, nuts, fish, chicken, whole grains.


Sugars and starches that feed your body’s energy.

Simple Carbohydrates

Quick sources of energy.

Healthy sources: Er, not many, but pure fruit juice at least offers vitamins and minerals (micronutrients, in case you’re wondering). Candy, white bread and soft drinks are notorious unhealthy sources of simple carbs.

Complex carbohydrates

Generally the most desirable type of carbohydrates because they include fiber, which slows digestion and helps moderate the level of sugar in your blood.

Healthy sources: vegetables, fruits, grains.


Offers long-term energy reserves and helps transport fat-soluble vitamins.

Saturated fat

Fat that’s solid at low temperatures and usually comes from animals. Not very healthy because it can raise the negative component of cholesterol (LDL).

Healthy sources: Well, you generally don’t want to seek out saturated fat, but some foods that have it are good for you in other ways. Full-fat yogurt has probiotics and offers protein and calcium, for example. Of course, you can get those from low-fat or nonfat yogurt. Just saying. The American Heart Association suggests you limit saturated fat to 5% to 6% of your caloric intake. So, for example, if My Plate suggests you need 2,000 calories a day, that would be about 13 grams of fat.

Unsaturated fat

Fat that’s closer to liquid at low temperatures and usually comes from plants (also can be referred to as oil). This kind of fat is good for you, and the foods that offer if often have micronutrients that are very good for you, along with omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows helps with arthritis and lowering the risk of heart disease, to name two.

Healthy sources: avocados, olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, salmon, sardines, flax seeds.

Trans fat

Avoid altogether, except where it’s naturally occurring in foods that are otherwise moderately healthful (whole milk, perhaps – though 1% fat is better!). We’ll delve into trans fat when we discuss food labels in a future post.

For now:

1. Review the food diary you’ve been keeping since the last post and tally how much of your diet has fallen into the three macronutrient categories. Compare that with the breakdown My Plate suggested for you, or do your own calculations with help from Washington State University, or consider how your diet has looked compared with Healthy Eating Plate.

2. If you’re way off-base when you refer to the sources above, slowly adjust your diet to be more in line with them. Chart a path that’s sustainable. That might mean changing just one component of your diet, and not changing others until you’re good with the first one. Then repeat that pattern, one component at a time.

Journalist Mitra Malek regularly researches content related to nutrition and wellness for Yoga Journal, for which was once an editor. Connect with her at

Tags: | | |