A plateful of healthy food

The so-called “Healthy Eating Plate” is a visual summary which translates the key findings of scientific research on nutrition and health into dietary advice. This idea was devised by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the aim being to illustrate the ideal way to put main meals together, based on the best available evidence from research.

There are no foods on the market that are entirely good or bad for us. Every food has specific characteristics and properties. What counts is the way we combine them in our daily meals, this is what makes our diet more or less healthy.

A balanced diet can be built into our daily routine by varying the foods we eat and favouring plant-based products (cereals, legumes, fruit and vegetables), especially those that are in season.

Fruit and vegetables should never be left out of any meal, neither should cereals - preferably whole grains. Protein sources need to be varied, choose between legumes (beans and peas), fish, meat, eggs and cheese.

A quick guide to a healthy plate: easy tips for healthy eating and keeping active:

  • Eat fruit and vegetables according to the season and vary the type and colour;
  • choose wholegrain cereals and foods made with them to increase our daily fibre intake;
  • remember to include legumes among the sources of protein we choose to eat, because they are also full of fibre;
  • water is the best drink to choose during main meals;
  • try to do some exercise every day.

How to put a healthy plate together

It would be better to talk about a healthy diet rather than a healthy plate, because the chart provided by the experts shows how different types of food, such as fruit and vegetables, grains and cereals, sources of protein and fat, as well as water, need to be balanced between meals. These are the key nutrients and compounds that the body needs to function properly.

Fruit and vegetables: half of a healthy plate

From an early age, one of the first rules we are taught about healthy eating is to have at least five portions of fruit and vegetables of different colours every day, with the emphasis on vegetables.

Half of a healthy eating plate consists of foods that belong to these two groups.

Vegetables can be part of the meal both as a side dish and as an ingredient in main courses. They are great in pasta sauces too, for example, or as a nibble before a meal or as a snack in between.

Fruit can be eaten before, during or after a meal, or even a few hours later. Some kinds of fruit are ideal to carry as a snack, like apples, apricots and tangerines.

Why is it important to eat fruit and vegetables?

All fruits and vegetables generally have a high water content and are low in calories, although this varies according to the type.

They are also an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and what are known as phytocompounds, which are molecules only found in the plant world that are increasingly being studied by the scientific community for their beneficial effects in the prevention of numerous diseases, including cancer.

In particular, kiwis, sweet peppers and oranges are rich in vitamin C; spinach, cabbage and asparagus provide folate (folic acid); and there are good levels of potassium in melons and cherries. These are just a few examples that help us appreciate one of the main rules of healthy eating: a healthy diet is a varied diet.

Last but not least, fruit and vegetables should never be absent at mealtimes because they contain dietary fibre.

Dietary fibre is only found in plant foods, and it contains of a series of components which have several beneficial health effects, particularly for the digestive system. Statistically, we know that people who consume more fibre on a daily basis have a lower risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

How many servings of fruit and vegetables per day?

At least five portions of different kinds of fruit and vegetables should be eaten each day.

Vegetables: the more the merrier! The number of portions suggested by the Italian Society of Human Nutrition is at least two, this is the bare minimum for a healthy diet.

One portion of vegetables corresponds to about 80 g of leafy salad (a large, 500 ml bowl) or 200 g of raw or cooked vegetables (2-3 tomatoes, 3-4 carrots, a pepper, a fennel, 2 artichokes, 2-3 courgettes, 7-10 radishes, 1-2 onions as an example of raw vegetables, or half a plate of spinach, chard, broccoli, aubergines etc. for cooked vegetables).

Potatoes don’t count as vegetables, even though they are often presented as a side dish on menus. Although from a botanic point of view they are tubers, potatoes are primarily a source of carbohydrate and so they should be counted among the cereals and related products on our healthy eating plate.

Fruit should be eaten twice a day, and a correct portion is about 150 g, which means one medium-sized fruit (apple, pear, orange, etc.) or two smaller ones (apricots, plums, tangerines, etc.).

From time to time, we may choose to eat dried fruit instead of fresh fruit. The ideal serving size in this case is 30 g, i.e., 3 dried apricots, or dried figs, or dates, 2 level tablespoons of sultanas, 2 prunes, etc.

Nuts should not be treated in the same way as fresh or dried fruit, as they have very different nutritional properties. Walnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, cashews and all foods that belong to this category have a high energy content because they are rich in unsaturated fats, they are also a good source of protein and can still be part of a healthy diet. The recommended portion size for this food group is approximately 30 g, i.e., 7-8 walnuts, or 15-20 almonds or hazelnuts, or 3 level tablespoons of peanuts, or pine nuts, or sunflower seeds, etc

Whole grains and foods made with them: a quarter of our healthy plate

Italy is world-famous for its pasta, pizza and bread, these are the main sources of carbohydrate in the diet of many people living in Italy. However, there is a wide variety of grain types that should be included in a healthy diet.

Wheat, rice, maize, barley, oats, spelt and millet are among the best-known cereals. Some people will also be familiar with amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat, which, to be precise, are called pseudocereals, because they have different botanical characteristics to real cereals, although they share similar nutritional properties.

According to the diagram of a healthy plate, no main meal should be without a portion of whole-grains or foods made with them. Dinner is no exception: the common belief that eating carbohydrates in the evening can be detrimental to the health is not true. Quite the opposite, scientific findings demonstrate that including carbohydrates in an evening meal is a habit that leads to greater control over blood sugar levels and can manage feelings of hunger and satiety better.

Why choose whole grains over refined grains?

What we call a “grain” is known technically as the caryopsis, and its nutrients are unevenly distributed both inside and on the surface. The outer shell (bran) is rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals, the inner part (germ) is mostly composed of unsaturated fats and some fat-soluble vitamins, while the rest of the kernel mainly contains starch.

During the refining process, however, the bran and the germ are generally removed, resulting in a loss of nutrients and beneficial components, including fibre.

Choosing wholegrain cereals and products made with them will therefore help us consume the recommended daily amount of fibre, which is 25-30 g. This is not an easy goal to achieve, fruit and vegetables alone are not enough, that’s why it is important to eat whole grains and legumes as well.

The healthy eating plate and coeliac disease

Coeliac disease is a specific adverse reaction by the immune system to gluten which affects about one in every hundred individuals. In the long term, the reaction these individuals have to gluten causes inflammation that damages the lining of the small intestine (gut) and prevents the body from absorbing certain nutrients. Once coeliac disease had been diagnosed, it is recommended that these individuals follow a gluten-free diet. However, this is the only reason to stop eating gluten, there are no grounds for people who have not been prescribed specific tests by a doctor who suspects coeliac disease, nor those who have not been diagnosed with the disease, to avoid gluten.

Certain cereals are naturally gluten-free, such as rice, buckwheat, maize, amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff.

With oats it is best to make sure that there is the “crossed grain” symbol on the packaging, meaning that there is no contamination from other cereals containing gluten.

Potatoes can be an additional source of carbohydrates for coeliacs as they don’t contain gluten.

Even for those with coeliac disease, about a quarter of a healthy plate should include these kinds of food in rotation, not least because eating them contributes to our dietary fibre intake. Industrial gluten-free products often lack fibre for technical reasons.

In recent years, the belief that gluten-free foods are healthier or easier to digest than those with gluten has gained ground. This is not the case. Despite gradual improvements in the food industry, much work still needs to be done to produce gluten-free bread, pasta and other baked goods that are rich in nutrients.

So, when choosing these products, check how much fibre, saturated fat, salt and sugar they contain.

What exactly is one portion of whole grains or foods made with grains and cereals?

The quantities recommended by the Italian Society of Human Nutrition for foods that fall into the general category of cereals and their byproducts are as follows:


  • 50 g of bread: this depends on the type, and can correspond to a small (unfilled) roll, half of a larger roll like ciabatta, a medium-sized slice of white bread, or a fifth of a baguette; 


Pasta and cereal grains

  • 80 g of dry pasta and cereal grains: this corresponds to about 50 penne or fusilli (short pasta shapes), 4 tablespoons of rice, spelt, or barley, 6-8 tablespoons of pastina (tiny pasta shapes usually cooked in broth). For soups, this is about half a serving;
  • 100 g of fresh egg pasta (for example, tagliatelle);
  • 125 g of stuffed pasta (like ravioli or tortellini);
  • 250 g of lasagna.


Bread substitutes

  • 30 g of the alternatives to bread (crackers, breadsticks, crispbreads, savoury biscuits, rusks, melba toasts, etc.): this corresponds roughly to one individual packet of crackers, or one frisella or 3-4 tarallini, or 3-4 melba toasts.


Sweet baked foods

  • 50 g of brioche, croissant or other pastries: this is approximately one piece, i.e., one individual croissant or pastry, etc.;
  • 30 g of biscuits, which is about 4-5 plain biscuits or 2-3 richer biscuits or cookies.


Breakfast cereals

  • 30 g of breakfast cereal: this is 6-8 spoons of cornflakes, 5-6 spoons of other, richer cereals, or 3 spoons of muesli.


  • 200 g of potatoes: roughly two small potatoes.

Protein sources: a quarter of a healthy plate

A high proportion of protein can be found in several different categories of food.

Legumes, fish, eggs, meat, milk and dairy products are all protein-rich and should present at every meal alternately, filling a quarter of our healthy plate. Foods that are sources of protein do not necessarily have to be eaten separately, they can be part of the topping on a pasta dish, an ingredient in a main dish or in main-course salads.

It’s a myth that we can’t have more than one kind of protein in the same meal, it’s perfectly safe. We just need to pay attention to the size of each individual portion so as not to exceed the recommended maximum daily protein intake.

What’s the difference between vegetable and animal proteins?

There is no difference. Proteins are molecules made up of a variable number of individual units called amino acids. Some of these building blocks are termed essential, because our body is not able to produce them and so we need to include them in our diet.

The confusion between plant and animal proteins probably arises because the latter contain more essential amino acids than plant-based proteins.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that different types of food need to be combined in a meal for our body to receive all the nutrients it needs.

Taking protein as an example, the essential amino acids which are lacking in legumes are well represented in cereals, and vice versa. This means that by combining cereals and legumes, either in the same meal or during the day, will ensure we include all the essential building blocks the body needs to function properly.

Which sources of protein should we choose?

For years now, the scientific community has been endorsing a mainly plant-based diet as the best way to stay healthy.

It follows that among the many foods that are sources of protein, legumes should be favoured.

They are often wrongly considered a side dish, legumes and pulses like beans, peas and lentils are not only rich in protein, they are also a good source of carbohydrate and fibre. When frozen or canned, their nutritional properties remain virtually unchanged. When using them from tins or jars, it is advisable to rinse them well under running water to remove most of the salt that is added to the liquid they are preserved in.

Fish is also an excellent source of protein. This is especially true of oily fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are important for a healthy heart and arteries. It isn’t necessary to go to the fishmonger’s several times a week, just buy more than one portion at the supermarket, freeze them and eat them on other days. Tinned fish is a good alternative sometimes too, especially if it’s in brine or in extra virgin olive oil.

When choosing cheeses, go for fresh, low-fat options, because the fact that they have not been aged means that they contain lower concentrations of salt and saturated fats compared to mature cheeses.

Generally speaking, however, cheese shouldn’t be seen as a snack to be eaten before a meal or a course to round off lunch or dinner. It should be used as an ingredient in its own right in any of the dishes that make up a meal.

Eggs can be part of a healthy diet, given that guidance which linked blood cholesterol levels and eggs is now outdated. It is not so much the cholesterol present in eggs that increases cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, it is the saturated and trans-fatty acids that are mainly found in butter, margarine, suet, lard, palm oil, coconut oil, sausages and cured meats, fatty cheeses, fried foods, snacks and industrial bakery products, just to list some examples.

Meat should be eaten in much smaller quantities than we are used to. This is especially true for red meat and processed meats, which are rich in saturated fat and salt. It’s better to eat fresh, white meats, favouring the leaner cuts.

How often is it advisable to eat protein-rich foods, and how can we measure a portion of them?

Legumes should be on our plate at least three times a week. A portion of legumes is as follows:

  • 150 g fresh or canned: about half a plate or a small tin;
  • 50 g dried: about 3-4 spoons.

Fish, particularly oily fish (anchovies, sardines, mackerel, etc.), should ideally also be eaten three times a week.

 A portion of fish, shellfish (molluscs and crustaceans) is:

  • 150 g fresh or frozen fish, which is roughly one small fish or a medium-sized fillet;
  • 20 g (drained weight) of preserved fish, such as a small tin of tuna in oil or brine, 4-5 thin slices of smoked salmon or half a fillet of salt cod.

Meat shouldn’t be eaten more than three times a week, and this should preferably be white meat (chicken, turkey and rabbit), while red meat should be limited.

A portion of meat is approximately:

  • 100 g of red meat (beef, lamb, pork, horse) and white meat (chicken, turkey, other poultry, rabbit) either fresh and frozen, which means about a slice of meat, or one burger, or 4-5 pieces of casserole, or one sausage, or a slice of chicken or turkey breast, or a small chicken drumstick;
  • 50 g of preserved meat (cold cuts, cured meats), this corresponds to about 3-4 medium-sized slices of ham, 5-6 medium-sized slices of salami or lean cured meat, or 2 medium-sized slices of fatty cured meat like mortadella.

Eggs should be eaten up to three times a week. One portion is:

  • 50 g, which is approximately one egg.

Milk, yoghurt and other fermented milk products can be consumed on a daily basis, up to three times a day. One portion is:

  • 125 ml of milk, which is about one small glass or half a medium-sized cup;
  • 125 g of yoghurt, which is one small pot.

We can eat fresh and mature cheeses up to three times a week, it’s preferable to choose the former.

A portion is about:

  • 100 g of fresh cheese, that’s roughly one small mozzarella;
  • 50 g of mature cheese, which is a little cube, for example.

Seasoning food: choose “good” fats and reduce salt

Meals that observe the principles of the “healthy eating plate” should mainly be seasoned with extra virgin olive oil. This is the key ingredient in the eating habits that have been studied more than any others by researchers worldwide: the so-called Mediterranean diet. Extra virgin olive oil contains a prevalence of monounsaturated (“good”) fatty acids, which benefit the cardiovascular system in particular, as numerous studies have demonstrated.

Unsaturated fats are also found in oily seeds (sesame seeds, linseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.), which can enrich salads and soups, or be added to sweet and savoury baked goods.

Dried fruit and nuts are also an excellent source of “good” fats and can be eaten as a healthy snack or used to prepare spreads, sauces and hummus.

Butter should be consumed in limited quantities, on the other hand, because it contains saturated fats for the most part, and these are the kind of fats we should eat the least of.

We should also restrict the amount of salt that we consume. Luckily, our taste buds become accustomed to eating less salt quite rapidly, and they can be fooled into thinking our meals are full of flavour even without much salt. A good trick is to use herbs and spices. Lemon and vinegar are also a great alternative to salt for dressing salads or dishes made with legumes.

Other tips include tasting dishes before adding salt, and not making salt available at the table.

A survey of the Italian resident population found that most of the salt they consume comes from processed and preserved foods, both industrial and craft products. It is therefore essential to read the nutritional facts before buying food and to choose products with a low salt content.

Is it necessary to avoid eating fat to lose weight?

Under normal physiological conditions, weight gain does not necessarily depend on excessive fat intake, it tends to be caused by an unbalanced diet overall and a lack of physical exercise. This means that removing fats from our diet in an attempt to eat more healthily makes no sense, not least because fats contain nutrients that play many important roles within the body.

In addition to providing energy, they are part of cell membranes and are necessary to produce hormones. Without them, certain vitamins and other compounds that are good for the health would not be absorbed. For example, carotenoids that are found in pumpkin and carrots, which are increasingly being studied by the scientific community.

What kind of salt should we choose?

When choosing which salt to buy, iodized salt is best, it counteracts iodine deficiency, a problem that affects people in many parts of the world.

The food industry has been making attempts to remedy the excessive consumption of salt, and sodium in particular; a substitute product has been developed in which part of the sodium is replaced by potassium and/or magnesium. This could be a useful alternative for people who suffer from high blood pressure, but it is always best to follow medical advice.

In recent years, salts of various colours or from different parts of the world have appeared on supermarket shelves and in craft markets. It is claimed that these salts have superior nutritional qualities compared to common salt, but although this is often used to advertise them, it has rarely been demonstrated.

Whichever type of salt we choose, it must be consumed in moderation. A varied and balanced diet is in itself sufficient to provide all the nutrients the body needs.

Drinks: just put water on the table

Staying properly hydrated is crucial to keeping healthy. During meals, as the visual representation of a healthy plate shows, our glass should only contain water. It is not a good idea to be tempted by the menus of some restaurants or food chains that offer a drink to accompany their dishes which is often sweetened or alcoholic.

On average, everyone should drink about 1.5-2 litres of water per day. To achieve this, it is a good idea to carry a water bottle and to drink frequently during the day, without waiting to feel thirsty. Tea, herbal teas and other beverages that are unsweetened and non-alcoholic can also contribute to the need for water.

Is fizzy water or tap water bad for us?

No, in fact both have advantages. Naturally carbonated water or water to which carbon dioxide has been added retains its characteristics more easily, while tap water contains a type of calcium, known as limestone, in a form that is particularly easy for the body to absorb. It is a myth that tap water favours the formation of kidney stones.

What are flavoured waters?

Flavoured waters are an excellent alternative to sugary drinks, which should be consumed in limited amounts. They are easy to make, just choose whatever fruit, vegetables and herbs are preferred and let them steep for a few hours in water.

Nevertheless, it is important not to believe that water that has been infused in this way has different properties from normal water, as is falsely stated in some reports, especially online. It does not purify the organism, properties like this cannot be attributed to any kind of food.

It is worth pointing out that even drinking lemon-infused water does not offer any particular benefits, other than contributing to the daily intake of vitamin C, which lemons are rich in.

Does the concept of a healthy plate apply at breakfast time too?

Yes, the recommendations should also be followed to put a healthy breakfast together, be it sweet or savoury.

For people who prefer a savoury breakfast, vegetables can be used as an ingredient in smoothies or spreads, or eaten as they are on slices of bread or toast. As for fruit, it can be squeezed, blended or used in a fruit salad. Fruit and vegetables can also form a mid-morning snack for people in a hurry at breakfast or who prefer not to eat these foods early in the morning.

Wholemeal cereals and products made with whole grains should make up a significant part of breakfast along with proteins. For example, cereals like cornflakes can be mixed with nuts, dried fruit, or chocolate, and eaten with plain yoghurt or milk, which are the typical proteins served for breakfast in Italy.

Physical exercise

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have included physical exercise in the visual representation of the “healthy eating plate” because it has a very important role to play in staying healthy.

We all need to do some exercise every day, which doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or playing a sport, just keeping active. This can be simply taking a walk or climbing the stairs, so as to limit the time spent sitting down as far as possible.