Updated: Aug 24, 2022
We've all heard the term before, but what exactly is a balanced diet and how do we achieve it? Please think of the word 'diet' here in the context of referring to the food we eat - not the following of a specific regime.
A healthy diet does not mean restriction, in fact, quite the opposite. Variety and enjoyment in the foods that you eat are key and an almost guaranteed way to create a sustainable and healthy relationship with food for life!
***Please take this as general information only. Each persons requirements are different depending on their body, lifestyle and goals. I am not a nutritionist or dietician, merely sharing the information I have gathered and researched for myself over the years.***
In order to maintain strong, healthy bodies and minds we require a variety of nutrients within our diets. These come from the foods and drinks we choose to consume on a daily basis - we literally are what we eat!
Think of your body like a machine, it needs fuel to run smoothly and the better the fuel, the better the performance. Remember, there is A LOT going on inside that we don't even think about - all of these processes need fuel! (See previous post about TDEE for more information about where our bodies use energy.)
In a nutritional sense, a balanced meal will include protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats. These 3 macronutrients will provide vitamins, minerals and fibre and be the fuel that enables your bodies to function and carry out the activities of daily life.
However, I believe the balanced diet encompasses balanced meals as mentioned above, AS WELL as the balance between 'fun' foods and more nutrient dense food choices - while including a lot of variety.
A way to think about this is the 80/20 rule - 80% of the time aim to include meals containing a good balance of protein, carbohydrate and fats coming from nutrient dense whole food. The remaining 20% leaves room for 'occasional' or fun foods....Welcome to your longterm, sustainable healthy lifestyle!
Restricting or demonising foods or even food groups (don't fear the carbs people!), only leads to cravings, deficiencies, deprivation and a general sense that you're missing out. A balanced diet leaves room for all foods - letting go of the labels 'good' and 'bad' foods can help make you less likely to overindulge on items you'd rather not!
Let's break down the balanced meal I mentioned earlier....
When putting your plate together, aim to include protein, a carbohydrate source, fruits and vegetables and a serve of healthy fats. If your meals include all these things, you're on the right track! Please keep in mind that serving sizes vary depending on your individual needs.
Aim to include a serve of protein at each meal. Protein is responsible for many functions within our bodies, including the growth and repair of our bones, muscles, skin and cartilage. Pretty important really!
If you have strength or body composition goals, getting enough protein in your diet and balancing this appropriately with carbohydrate and fats becomes more important. Whether this is you or not, we should all be prioritising quality protein in our meals. As well as being an essential nutrient, it is also very satiating and helps keep us feeling full and energised.
Protein sources include (but are not limited to) meats, poultry, fish, seafood, tofu, beans, legumes, dairy and eggs. Many other foods contain protein (including vegetables like broccoli, spinach and potato), just not in as high quantities making them a less effiecient source - but they still contribute to your daily intake! For example to get 30g of protein you could eat 100g of chicken, 1.5 cups of Greek yoghurt or around 700g of broccoli...That's a whole lot of green!
It's worth mentioning here that foods can fall into more than one category...Eggs and dairy are both a source of protein and healthy fats, while starchy vegetables are also a carbohydrate source. A small amount of knowledge around what is in your food can be really helpful when putting your plate together!
This macronutrient is our bodies preferred source of energy and is also probably the one with the worst reputation!
Why are carbohydrates so important? The following extract is taken straight from the NZ Nutrition Foundation website:
"During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is then absorbed into your bloodstream. Glucose, also known as blood sugar is the main source of energy for your body’s cells, including your brain. Glucose can be used immediately or can be stored in the liver or muscle as glycogen."
Don't fear the carbs! They're necessary, delicious and probably the easiest and most accessible nutrient to add to our plate!
We get carbohydrate into our diets from lots of different foods, some adding more nutritional value than others. From things like sugar, lollies, cakes and biscuits, to rice, pasta, bread, fruit and vegetables such potato, corn, pumpkin and kumara.
Using the 80/20 rule as an example, we would be aiming for most of our carbohydrate to come from whole foods like starchy vegetables (potato, kumara, pumpkin), fruit, rice or other wholegrains. This leaves room for some of the less nutrient dense stuff - the few squares of chocolate or slice of birthday cake that are a necessary part of a healthy balanced lifestyle!
Fat doesn't make you 'fat' - it's an essential part of a healthy balanced diet and has many functions - including the absorption of vitamins, hormone health, nervous system regulation and lowering cholesterol.
However, the type of fats we consume does matter...
Focus on adding healthy fat sources such as avocado, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon or sardines, nuts and seeds and consuming lesser quantities of saturated fat (mostly animal fats - red meat, chicken skin, full fat dairy).
'Trans fats' are the type of fats to be mindful of and aiming to reduce within our diets. These fats come from packaged or processed foods (potato chips, fried foods, packaged biscuits, cakes, etc) - things we know to be less nutritious anyway!
Fruits and Vegetables
Eat the rainbow - the more colour, crunch and texture on your plate the better!
Fruits and vegetables provide our bodies with the vitamins, minerals and fibre it needs to function optimally and make us feel our best.
2 serves of fruit and at least 3 of vegetables is the recommendation here and variety is key. Aim to get a good rotation of different plants in your diet, buying in season and utilising frozen veges - they're just as good as fresh! Remember that starchy veg like potato and pumpkin also count as a carbohydrate source, so you're ticking two boxes in one here!
Add your potato to a plate with some greens, tomato, avo (as a serve of fruit and healthy fat), with your protein source and there's your balanced meal done - too easy!
A balanced diet will look different on everybody. Each of us has different dietary needs depending on our individual circumstances, not to mention preference, lifestyle and accessibility to foods.
If you are after a more in depth look into calories and macronutrients, THIS short video by James Smith breaks down what you need to know into information that is easy to understand.
As I said at the beginning, a little bit of knowledge around food is really beneficial and can be helpful when creating a long term balanced, long and happy lifestyle. The basics of what a protein, carbohydrate and fat look like is a great place to start!
Life is for living, all foods fit and the 'perfect diet' does NOT exist therefore is not worth stressing about! Aim for mostly nutritious, balanced meals containing lots of colour and enjoy the fun things when you have them - what's a birthday without cake or a winter without mulled wine anyway?!