This summer the U.S. Department of Agriculture came out with new nutrition guidelines that recommend how much you should eat based on your age, height, weight, gender and activity level. To help people follow the MyPlate guidelines, which emphasize eating fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they designed a plate that is half covered with vegetables and fruit and half with grains and protein, with dairy on the side. We wanted to see how hard it was to eat healthy, so we gave our teen staff a “healthy eating challenge,” in which they had to follow the guidelines for a week.
I failed the challenged, but at least I learned to like vegetables
By Tyler Bradshaw
15, Redondo Union HS
On July 1, I went to the MyPlate website. I surf every other day so it told me to eat 2,400 calories a day. I had to have 8 ounces of grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 6.5 ounces of protein a day—a bunch of numbers and big words that was way too much for me to swallow at one time.
I asked my mom to help me with my new diet because she’s the one who cooks, and she said, “I can do that … I think.”
The rest of the day before the challenge I cleaned out the pantry eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch, breakfast bars and canned pineapples because I wanted something that tasted good before a week of healthy food.
The next day for breakfast my mom put four waffles on my plate instead of the usual two or three, less bacon, a large cheese omelet and a bowl of mixed fruit. I don’t eat eggs because they feel slimy, so it was really hard to eat the omelet. I complained but ended up eating it.
For lunch I usually have snacks, like chips or a Pop-Tart, but my mom made chili cheese fries. For dinner I had a huge plate of veggies covered in cheese (for dairy) to make up for the vegetables I hadn’t eaten all day, chicken, rice and grapes. After an hour of eating I calculated my calories for the day and I had eaten only around 2,000 calories. How is that even possible!? I was short 400 calories.
The next day for lunch I made grilled cheese with bacon and mixed vegetables. For dinner my mom didn’t use as much butter to prepare the pasta sauce and she added olives and onions. I hate milk so I gave up after a swallow and had vanilla ice cream for dessert.
On the Fourth of July I woke up to the aroma of my mom’s chicken. I ate 10 pieces of chicken and snacked on baked beans, potato salad and macaroni & cheese. While I was eating a hot dog, my mom asked me, “Have you recorded all that you ate today?”
I dropped the hot dog and silently cursed myself. I failed the challenge! I gave up on the challenge after that, but I still ate full meals for lunch.
Eating healthy wasn’t so bad after all. The hardest part was trying to eat all of the vegetables. Before, I wouldn’t eat them because I didn’t like the taste but now I enjoy vegetables more and I feel more energetic. I always knew vegetables were good for me and I felt bad for not eating them. I had to learn to like them.
It was hard to follow the guidelines when we ate out
By Kristy Plaza
17, Duarte HS
The MyPlate website recommended I eat 8 ounces of grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruits, 3 cups of dairy and 6.5 ounces of proteins, totaling 2,200 calories per day.
On my first day, which was a Monday, I wanted to see how healthy my normal diet was, so I ate what I’d normally eat. I had a wheat bagel and a strawberry yogurt for breakfast. Later I had a handful of popcorn chicken, an apple, a tangerine and some green beans. For dinner, I had a 6-ounce piece of steak (the package listed the weight) and a quarter of my plate had grains (angel hair pasta), just like the MyPlate icon suggested. I felt like I did OK because I ate something from every group.
From Tuesday to Friday I tried to make my meals look like the MyPlate icon. Before I put my sandwich together, I separated the ingredients on my plate so it was easier to keep track of the categories. The whole grain bread and oven-roasted turkey went on one half of my plate. I put lettuce and avocado on the other half of the plate. And for the dairy on the side, I used provolone cheese.
I always eat lots of fruit and I made sure that I ate vegetables this week by making my favorite—steamed green beans.
Every weekend my family and I go out. Because it’s such a normal part of my schedule I forgot about the challenge. I eat a lot on weekends, so even after I ate chicken and ribs, I had ice cream an hour later. I realized I’d failed the challenge, at least for that day. Even though I didn’t pass the challenge, it’s nice to know that I already eat a well-balanced diet.
Since I already ate healthy, it was pretty easy
By Aaron Schwartz
16, Gabrielino HS (San Gabriel)
I’m usually a healthy eater. This is partly because of my parents, who didn’t expose me to junk food when I was young. In fact, until I started preschool, I thought the word “dessert” meant fruit. Now I eat healthy because I like to. Sometimes my friends look at my lunch and look at their cafeteria lunch and say, “Why do you have to eat carrots when I’m eating pizza? You’re making me feel guilty.” I’ll sigh, give them carrot and reply, “There, now you can’t complain.”
I did the challenge to see how healthy I really am. The choosemyplate.gov website gave me a 3,200-calorie plan (I do cross country). It had me eating 7 ounces of protein, 10 ounces of grains, 3 cups of dairy, 4 cups of vegetables, and 2½ cups of fruit every day. I was allowed 600 calories of unhealthy food. When I saw 3,200 calories I thought, “Yes, I don’t have to starve myself to be healthy.”
My main concern was how I would measure everything. But after exploring the website, I found that there were serving size measurements for almost every type of food. Two plums is one cup of fruit, eight slices of onion is one cup of vegetables, a slice of bread is an ounce of grains, and two slices of Swiss cheese is one cup of dairy. I was ready to go.
I thought this challenge would be easy. But I quickly learned that I physically cannot eat 3,200 calories of food.
For breakfast every day I had two slices of whole grain toast and a glass of milk, even though I usually drink water. For lunch I had a peanut butter and honey sandwich, a banana, two plums, 12 baby carrots (one cup), a handful of grape tomatoes and apple juice.
For dinner I ate what my parents made. One of the dinners I had was chicken, rice, salad and milk. During these meals I would try to have two extra servings of grains, vegetables and meat. Even though I ate until I couldn’t eat another bite, it was never enough to meet the 3,200-calorie goal.
Overall I was able to eat all the fruit, vegetables and dairy that I needed, but could only eat about 7 ounces of grains instead of 10, and half of the protein. I only ate empty calorie foods twice, and that was because my mom made peach cobbler. I figured it has some fruit in it so it can’t be that bad.
I finished the challenge thinking that I am a healthy eater, which is what I expected. The challenge told me that I should try to eat more meat and grains. But since changing my diet didn’t me make me feel different, I’m not going to worry about it.
I’ve started adding some fruits and vegetables to my junk-food diet
By Avika Dua
16, Walnut HS
Since both sides of my family have histories of heart disease and cancer, I thought the healthy eating challenge would be a way to begin changing my eating habits. My editor warned me how hard it is to eat healthy, but I didn’t think seven days of restraint would be that bad.
The MyPlate website told me I should eat 2,000 calories a day (my physical activity was less than 30 minutes a day since I hadn’t been exercising much in the summer). I thought following that would be easy, but then I looked up how many calories were in a tall double chocolate chip Starbucks frappuccino (almost 450 … yikes) and realized that if I went about my normal eating routine—a frap a week, a small bag of chips a day and fast food every other day—I’d consume all the calories I was allowed with coffee drinks and junk food. I was scared I wouldn’t have room for good meals.
I stopped buying snacks at break during summer school and made sure my mom didn’t give me chips (other than SunChips, since they are clearly the healthiest and least-tasty chips) to take with me. It didn’t take me long to realize that my body’s need for junk food was too strong.
To keep myself awake whenever I was up late doing homework for summer school, I’d sneak chips and ice-cream bars into my room. I didn’t want my mom to see because she’d remind me of the challenge. Because choosemyplate.gov allowed me only 200 calories for extra fats and sugars, I broke the rules almost every day after the third day.
I didn’t want to follow the rules if it meant not eating what tastes good. I didn’t have time to go home and eat so I had a Chipotle burrito every day on my way from summer school to SAT class, with sour cream and cheese but no lettuce.
Yet, the challenge wasn’t a complete failure. With every lunch and dinner I ate at home, my mom gave me vegetables. She also gave me fruit for dessert.
I think this challenge has improved the way I’ll be eating. Even though I didn’t quit unhealthy foods, I got into the habit of eating fruit and vegetables with every meal. I even sometimes catch myself asking my mom for peas or broccoli. It’s a start, but the fact that my mom had to push me so hard to do this makes me kind of scared to go away for college. Hello “freshman 15.”
It was hard to get enough protein while also trying to go vegan
By Andrea Perez
17, Bravo Medical Magnet HS
While taking the challenge, I was also transitioning from vegetarian to vegan, meaning I am trying to avoid all animal products, which means no meat, gelatin, honey, milk, or eggs. I also used the challenge to help me cut down on sweets.
The website said I had to consume 5 oz. of grains, 2 cups of vegetables, 1½ cups of fruit, 3 cups or dairy, and 5 oz. of protein every day. It seemed easy enough.
I was very mistaken. Between 8:20 p.m. and 10 p.m. on that first day, I had to eat a serving of dairy, protein, vegetables, and fruit to complete the daily requirements. And I was already still full from all the food I had eaten that day.
The other big challenge was finding sources of protein. I ate eggs every once in a while as a vegetarian, but because I was trying to become vegan, I had to find new foods to get protein. At first I ate seeds, mixed nuts, and green peas. But by the end of the first two days, I found myself loathing the peanuts in the mixed nuts. So I bought chickpeas, tofu and almonds at Ralphs.
When I first opened and drained a container of tofu, the stench was revolting. But after making a couple of meals I now like cooking with tofu. It adds texture, protein and taste to salads, wraps and sandwiches.
I didn’t eat or drink any dairy products derived from animals, so I drank 3 cups of almond milk, each of which contains more calcium than a cup of cow milk. I usually drink at least one cup of milk per day, so downing 3 cups was painless.
One experiment that did NOT go well was my spinach smoothie. For my first attempt, I blended spinach, apricots, and almond milk together. It was absolutely disgusting. For my second attempt, I added apple slices instead of milk, and a little water for it to blend smoothly. It tasted horrible, but I didn’t want to waste more food, so I chugged it down.
The challenge has encouraged me to keep eating as vegan as possible, because now I feel much more confident that I can do it. I’ve also succeeded in cutting back on sweets (although it could be because I was so darn full), which has been my biggest weakness in becoming vegan and eating healthier.
I actually had to eat fewer vegetables and add more variety!
By Ann Lei
17, Walnut HS
My friends tell me I eat like a rabbit. My diet consists mostly of whole grains, grilled chicken breast, plain Greek yogurt, and lots of fruits and vegetables. I like eating healthy because it gives me more energy, so I thought this challenge would be a breeze. I was wrong.
I am only 5 feet tall, but I run cross country and take dance lessons, so the ChooseMyPlate.gov site recommended I eat 6 ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 5.5 ounces of protein per day.
The MyPlate website was easy to use but it wasn’t specific enough. A slice of bread counts as one ounce of grains, but how can it always be 1 ounce when bread comes in many sizes. I often used nutritional information on the bread package to find the serving size.
Before starting the challenge I did a trial day and realized that I was barely consuming only half the grains I needed, but almost twice the vegetables. I ate enough dairy and protein.
For breakfast, I began adding a piece of toast to my veggie and cheddar omelet or extra granola to my fruit parfaits, but by the end of the day I still needed to eat two more ounces of grains. I also swapped my typical snacks of natural peanut butter and apple slices for bowls of whole grain cereal and soymilk. The cereal could not replace the sweet and salty combination of apples and peanut butter, though.
In the end, I realized that it is possible to eat too many vegetables, especially when it makes me eat less of other food groups. Eating healthy is not only about the types of food you eat, but also the variety. Now I eat more meals with whole grains, like sandwiches. I am grateful that this challenge opened me up to new foods as well.