When There is No Plate, What Do We Balance?

naruedom/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
naruedom/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

During my dietetic internship I counseled patients about general healthy eating strategies. My favorite method was the “balanced plate” method. Teaching people to look at their plate like a pie chart was easy and comprehensive for many to understand. I was looking forward to continuing to educate people this way. Then I got my first job as a registered dietitian in Burkina Faso, West Africa — a place where people don’t eat off individual plates, much less know how to balance them.

During my service as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was introduced to a completely new and exciting food culture heavily based on tradition and verbal knowledge. The staple food, called to, is a dish prepared by mixing flour (corn, millet or sorghum, depending on the region of the country) with boiling water until it reaches the consistency of thickened polenta. This is placed in a huge bowl around a circle of family and friends. Each person dips the to into an accompanying bowl of sauce. The sauce usually consists of seasoned vegetables such as okra, onions, tomatoes and tree leaves.

There are plenty of extremely healthy elements in the typical Burkinabe diet such as seasonal vegetables, healthy grains (sorghum), tropical fruits (mangos, papayas), and a lack of the heavily processed snack foods we see in the United States and other developed countries. What’s missing is the balance. Meals typically lack a good protein source, are very heavy on the starches, and often include only one or two vegetables depending on the harvest.

My role as an RD and as a Peace Corps volunteer is to empower people to make healthy choices through ingredients already within their communities. Unlike the multiple food groups taught elsewhere, I break down food groups into three simple categories: “energy-providing foods” (starches, oils, sugars, etc.), “constructors” (proteins), and “protectors” (fruits and vegetables). Instead of a plate, I explain each using a drawing of a house. The “energy-providing foods” form the foundation; the “constructors” are the walls; and the “protectors” are the roof. This analogy is easy and comprehensive for my villagers to understand. With a strong emphasis on locally available protein sources such as peanuts, beans, fish and eggs, I encourage women to include protein in every meal, particularly in their sauces.

And, rather than teaching people in my village the “balanced plate” method, I’ve altered this education strategy to the “balanced bite.” People eat with their hands, not from round individual plates — so I teach them to balance each bite to include all the food groups, with emphasis on “constructor” and “protector” foods. Make each bite worth it…bon appétit!

Alexandra Kuznetsov on Linkedin
Alexandra Kuznetsov
Alexandra Kuznetsov, RD, is a Chicago-based registered dietitian working on maternal and child health issues. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Burkina Faso, West Africa, and is the country representative for Burkina Faso with the American Overseas Dietetic Association. Connect with her on LinkedIn.