The Key to Getting a Balanced Diet
Created | Updated Aug 4, 2012
All things in moderation is a great cliché for food especially: fundamentally we should have a varied diet of small amounts.
Despite the many 'healthy eating' food brands and the different dietary courses that have popped up in the last few years, maintaining a balanced diet is a real struggle for most people. With fast food, pizza delivery and any number of other temptations that stand in our way every day, it's hard to know which advice is the best for each of us.
I have been meaning to come here for a while to say that eating a balanced diet is not about losing weight. People that are the ideal weight for their height with the optimum percentage of body fat will still benefit from thinking more about what goes on their plate and in their mouths to ensure that they get a good mix of vitamins, minerals, fibre, carbs, protein, fats and chocolate (a food group all of its own and therefore essential to include). Eating in a balanced way is about good nutrition, therefore good health, and this is important to everyone.
Eating a balanced diet is supposed to be about eating sufficient proteins, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to repair your body and maintain your health. Why do we often only consider diet when we need to lose weight?
Despite its more common use as a way of saying that someone is on a weight loss programme, the word diet simply means the usual food or drink of a person, or the regulated selection of foods - for any number of reasons - including to gain a healthy balance of different foods.
Having a balanced diet is not about losing weight necessarily, in fact any weight loss regime that particularly restricts intake of any food group could be said to be unbalanced.
People who are not overweight can benefit from having a balanced diet to provide them with the nutrients needed by their bodies. People who are overweight through having an inappropriately unbalanced diet will find that they gradually reduce their weight if they do adopt a more balanced diet - and this process is generally speeded up by increasing levels of activity. The key word here is 'balanced' rather than 'diet', and learning healthy eating habits is the way to go.
You should always remember, there is no such thing as a 'bad' food. You can eat anything as part of a healthy diet - it's just a question of getting the balance right.
The various food groups are often presented graphically as a pyramid - each layer is narrower than the one below, meaning we should eat less of the upper layers, and more of the bottom layers. So from the bottom up:
Most of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates - bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and the like. Any wholemeal or wholegrain products will have more nutritional benefit than 'white' equivalents.
The current recommendation is to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, although research suggests that just three servings may have the same benefits. Whatever you do eat, you should try and eat as wide a range of fruit and veg as possible - that way you stand to benefit from all the different nutrients that fresh produce can give.
Meat, poultry and fish are next. For some people (in the UK, at least) it may be fairly common to eat fish on a Friday. However, we should really eat more fish than this! Especially 'oily' fish (such as mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna and salmon) which are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially good for the heart, as well as having many other benefits. But be careful:
It is worth saying that while we are encouraged to include oily fish in our diets, we shouldn't eat more than two portions a week due to the levels of mercury and other pollutants absorbed by the fish from the sea. This is a sorry state of affairs indeed.
Right at the top of the pyramid we find the sugars and fats. You should try and minimise these - these are the things that are most likely to help you put on weight. If you can, switch from butter to a low-fat spread. Try halving the amount of sugar you put in your tea, or on your cereals, or better still, cut it out completely. If you bake, try halving the amount of sugar in your recipes - you probably won't notice the difference. And beware of 'invented' foods. Trans fats comes to mind. These were developed to keep food fresh longer on the shelf. Trouble is, they're worse for you than plain old butter or lard. So skip the fluffy shortening and hydrogenated oils. And when they're mixed with white flour and sugar, as they are in so many products, you have the triple whammy of the food industry.
Even if you really dislike a few things in each section, there's more than enough to choose from to find something you do like. And that's the key - if you enjoy what you're eating, it's so much easier. It helps to focus on eating the food you like, rather than thinking about all the foods you shouldn't eat too much of because they don't fit into your balanced diet. If you eat at work, keep healthy snacks like fresh fruit or dried fruit and nuts there, and limit your visits to vending machines.
The key to a healthy diet is to eat food in as natural a state as possible, eg, fresh vegetables are better than frozen which are better than canned. Lightly steamed or stir-fried vegetables are better than baked or boiled. Raw fruits are more nourishing than cooked fruits. A whole orange is better than orange juice. Whole grains are better than more highly processed ones. Eat brown rice instead of white. Use old fashioned oats instead of quick-cooking or instant oatmeal. Eat wholegrain breads instead of white.
Try not to miss meals - it can be helpful to eat five small meals throughout the day, but that might not be practical. Three meals a day is a good compromise. Going for long stretches with no food can make you tired and irritable, or so hungry you start snacking on whatever comes to hand.
Several small meals is the way to go - stick with 200-300 calorie servings. This will keep your stomach from stretching out. When your stomach is stretched from a large meal, it keeps you from feeling satisfied if you eat a smaller meal next time you become hungry. This is why pie-eating contestants eat a huge meal the day before - it's to make plenty of room for all that pie.
You should always eat breakfast - make time before you go to work or school by getting up slightly earlier, or take something in to work to eat at your desk if you can. This really does stop you snacking through the whole day, and if you have cereal it means you're getting a good dose of calcium too.
Obviously avoid cereals which should be classified as chocolate or sweets, or are loaded with sugar. They should contain fibre, and the milk used will regenerate your body (any fluids you have lost during the night). If you can't eat cereal a slice of brown toast with a banana and a glass of orange juice.
Porridge is an excellent way to start the day. When I was a child, my mom would cook oatmeal from whole oats. Whole oatmeal is delicious, and has much more fibre and nutrition than the processed 'quick' oatmeal which tends to be slimy. One bowl of oatmeal in the morning and I didn't get hungry until two or three in the afternoon.
In brief, too much dairy is not good for you. In addition to the fact that dairy is generally fairly high in saturated fats, etc, the main reasoning behind this statement is evolutionary. Humans and close ancestors have been around for millions of years. Dairy animals were domesticated no more than 6,000 years ago, probably more like 4,000. The process of human evolution is extraordinary, but very slow. Therefore, many argue that the human body has simply not had time to evolve and adjust to a large intake of dairy products. We are designed to have milk from our own mothers when we are young. It's not just food, it's filled with hormones and antibodies that help us grow and develop our immune systems. Cows are the same way. So, how much bovine hormone do you need?
Well, none actually. I suppose it's possible that given another few million years, the human digestive system could work out some way of neutralizing the hormones, but for the moment that's not the case. We are essentially drinking cow baby formula when we drink milk - something that wasn't designed for us. And I think it's logical to assume that if it wasn't designed for us, we don't really need it.
Like us, other mammals will drink the milk of another species if milk of their own is not available. However, no other species chooses to drink milk past weaning age.
There is research showing that the highest rates of osteoporosis occur in countries whose people consume a lot of dairy products. Most humans don't produce the enzyme needed to digest milk sugar once they're past the age of two or three; if they consume dairy products, their innards will rebel. The exception to this is people of Northern European descent, who generally continue to produce the necessary enzyme all their lives - which still doesn't mean dairy is good for them.
I'm more worried about the hormones in milk and a possible link to breast cancer. And I'm not so sure - though I have NO evidence to back this up - that mad cow disease can't be passed through milk.
A doctor I know has devoted his practice to treated gastrointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, etc. The first thing he does with his patients is eliminate all dairy from their diets. Which is very hard to do, by the way. If you read food labels, you'll see lactic acid, milk fat, or casein, (a milk protein) in lots of prepared and processed foods. Even soya 'cheese' has milk in it!
Fruit and Vegetables
There are increasing numbers of studies showing just how beneficial it is to us to eat some fruit/vegetables every day, they differ in the amount we should eat to achieve the beneficial effect but eating at least three, preferably five, portions of fresh veg is by far the easiest thing you can to do improve your long term health.
How large is a portion? In terms of fruit, one apple, one orange, or one banana. For smaller fruits like apricots you need two, and for very small fruits like lychees you need five. With things like melons and pineapples, a good sized slice is one portion. A handful is what counts with small fruits such as grapes or berries. Canned or stewed fruit, three tablespoons, dried fruit (like raisins) one tablespoon. One glass of fruit juice. For vegetables, two tablespoons of any cooked veg, eg carrots or broccoli, or three for very small veg like peas; one small bowl of salad. Baked beans count as vegetables, but for the purposes of 'five a day', potatoes do not.
What is striking is how easy it is to do:
- Glass of orange juice at breakfast
- Carrots/tomatoes/enough lettuce in your lunch, and perhaps an apple etc
- Two different types of vegetables in your dinner (you can even count the veg on a pizza as a portion!), and fruit on your dessert.
Tomatoes and jalapeños are a great source of vitamin C, while broccoli is full of calcium. And vegetable and fruit sources are better for you than trying to take vitamins in pill form or powdered form. The body absorbs the vitamins better. Vitamins are also absorbed more easily if they're taken with a little fat - many vitamins are fat-soluble.
I have muesli in the morning with a chopped apple in it. I use organic apple juice (or sometimes apple and mango juice) instead of milk, which I now don't like in cereal. There you are - at least two servings first thing in the morning.
If you want another dessert (and who doesn't from time to time), you can always nibble a banana between meals. The great thing is that you've then got a great excuse to snack. Bananas contain vitamins and potassium. They taste good, are portable food, and easy to carry. And nice on sarnies or toast.
Fussy eaters who don't like some fruit or vegetable should try it in different recipe may be you don't like particular spice in the recipe. Try mix vegetable soup, mixed fruit juice etc.
A vegetarian diet is basically lots of fresh vegetables, fruits (vitamin sources), starch sources like potatoes, rice, pulses, chick peas, dairy products like butter, cheese milk, yogurt (protein, vitamins, calcium sources) carbohydrates sources like wheat/corn flour and sugar. Some vegetarians eat egg which again is good source of essential vitamins. A daily diet must contain all these but of course in right proportion, like more vegetables and fruits and less sugar and fats. Lots of salads and less chocolates.
Sesame seeds are a good source of calcium - handy to know if you can't or don't eat dairy products and are concerned about osteoporosis.
I sprinkle a few in salads or on to of pasta dishes and in sandwiches etc. They're cheap and last for ages and I really enjoy the taste.
I love seeds of all kinds in salad. I get sunflower seeds and sprinkle them on my salad - these are delicious, especially with an oil-and-vinegar dressing. They add a little bit of fat and a lot of flavour.
Water and Hydration
The rule of thumb is eight glasses of water per day for adults, more if the weather is hot or if you exercise, and six for children. Don't rely on thirst to tell you that you need to drink.
Fruit or vegetable juices are also good, but watch out for extra calories. Tea (black, oolong, green or white) is wonderful1. Green and white tea2 have much less caffeine than black tea. Rooibos (also known as 'red tea') is an herbal tea that is also full of antioxidants and is caffeine-free as well. Milk is fine for people who consume dairy products. Stick to low-fat or skim milk if you're watching your weight.
There is some disagreement among nutritionists on whether things like coffee, colas, wine, beer, and the like should count toward your goal of eight glasses per day. Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, so they actually increase your need for liquids. A lot of herbal 'teas' can also act as diuretics - so just because you're drinking peppermint tea doesn't mean that you're getting enough hydration!
I buy a litre and a half bottle each morning, keep it in easy reach on my desk, and try to have it finished by the end of the day. I don't always achieve this, but at least I'm getting somewhere towards the goal!
Work on drinking plenty of water. Unless you are of a species which is violently allergic to water, you will find that simple H2O is greatly helpful to your body. Water helps to regulate body temperature, it washes away any unused and therefore dangerous minerals and vitamins, it increases the body's metabolism rate, it lubricates the muscles and organs in the body, it helps both to wake you up (cold, with ice), and put you to sleep (warm, with dried leaves), and, if spilt, it generally fails to stain or eat through your clothing.
So what about 'junk food'? No problem, just try and limit yourself to once or twice a week.
Anyway, chocolate is good for you. It inhibits tooth decay (really), contains anti-oxidants to help ward off cancer (really), and has recently been shown to lower blood pressure (but only the dark stuff, not milk chocolate). And it comes from beans, which are legumes, so it's practically a vegetable.
There are some hugely brilliant organic chocolates out now, heavy on the cocoa solids, just bursting with flavour. Had some on camp last month, although I didn't eat a lot. With proper chocolate, you don't need to eat a lot at a time. With cheap chocolate, you do.
Sugar in tea! White death! Calories with no saving graces as it doesn't provide nutritional benefits. Alright, I admit I do have sugary things from time to time, but not in hot drinks.
I'm reminded of Kendall Mint Cake which walkers take to give them instant energy. That's mostly sugar - so I suppose there is a place for it.
Sugar - I eat as little of it as possible: substituting honey when I want a sweet fix. After all honey is much less processed than sugar - especially comb honey.
If you crave sweets it's better to do your own baking. That way you can use butter or canola oil for the fat and add healthy ingredients like oats, fruit and nuts. You'll have a delicious treat and it will be healthier than the prepared sweets so many people eat. Especially if you use whole wheat pastry flour in place of white enriched flour.
Low-fat is a pet hate. I'm diabetic and so very sugar-aware - do you know how much sugar is in a low-fat yoghurt? They can be 15% sugar. Of course, what they don't tell you is that if your body doesn't need all that sugar it will turn into....fat!
You don't have to go to the health food shops and spend a fortune. Just start making better choices of what is readily available. A handy hint is to only shop the perimeter of the grocery stores. That's where you'll find fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, and dairy. The stuff in the centre aisles is mostly over-processed.
Grow Your Own
As my Mum used to say, a mouthful of dirt every now and then did nobody any harm.
The cheapest food of all is that which we grow ourselves. And the added advantage is that you know exactly what's gone into it. Or, more to the point, what hasn't gone into it.
I grow enough veg to sustain me all year round, in a 15m x 5m plot. Heaps (literally) of manure, compost and grass cuttings keep the soil good and productive. Big freezers, cupboards available for jars of preserves and some weekends of hard graft at certain times of the year, are all it takes.
Home grown food tastes better, is fresher, can be chemical-free if you're organic. And you get that amazing sense of utter smugness when folk a) admire the productive veg plot and b) complement you on the fantastic-tasting meals that you produce.
I remember going to friends in Belgium, who just went into the garden to pick whatever they needed for the next meal. As you say, you can't beat it for freshness and taste. You have to be really disciplined to make it work, though.
I'm not sure it's discipline, but organisation and passion. It honestly doesn't take that much effort to produce heaps of veggies: I reckon it works out about an hour a day if it was spread throughout the year.
Of course, it's not as simple as that and there are peaks and troughs of activity, so it gets hectic some weekends in spring and early summer. Then there's the big clear up in the autumn/early winter, which takes time. But at harvest time it's mainly picking, which is quick and easy.
I spend as much time in the kitchen processing fresh produce in the summer.
Rather than waste time and space on cheap crops like carrots, onions and potatoes, I grow parsnip, baby leek, and giant garlic. Raspberries and runner beans live in tubs on the patio. That way I get all my favourites for very little time and effort.
I also heard that carrots take up chemicals really well, so I always buy organic carrots (well I buy as much organic produce as I can, but it's not always available) and if there aren't any, I go without. Same goes for tomatoes - I like to know that what I'm buying isn't GM modified.
Also, by consuming food that's not stuffed with hormones, antibiotics and so on, we build up good immune systems too.
Grow your own. I don't have the room or time to grow my own veg, but I do have herbs. Every little helps, and you only have to shell out once!
You never know the results on your children. By eating simple nutritious food, you tend to avoid the reactions that you can get from processed foods, including hyperactivity and attention deficit.
Cooking doesn't need to take forever, I can prep and eat a home made tomato soup ten minutes very easily.
Healthy eating doesn't have to be tasteless. These days, we don't always have the time to create tasty food from scratch. Home-made is the best way to go though. Make your own pasta sauces, marinades etc - then you know what's in them.
I seem to have less trouble eating healthily when cooking for myself than when going out, perhaps because cooking forces you to plan your meals in advance if you don't want to be shopping every day.
Some nice and healthy stuff to put in sandwiches; cheese, ham, chicken, tuna, lettuce, tomato.
Not all frozen food is evil. For people like myself who eat on the run very often and need to make meals for others in a hurry, frozen veg and fruit is a blessing. Nothing processed and you can even get frozen produce that is organic, if you don't freeze it yourself. I can take a bag of frozen mixed organic vegetables, a little pasta, some garlic, some olive oil and goat cheese and make a pasta primavera that would make your mouth water just to smell it. All in a very short time. Same with some soft tofu, frozen fruit, and some soya protein powder. Blend it together and it is instant dessert. The only problem with freezing tofu products is that it changes their consistency, usually making the tofu chewy or granular. My solution is to add virgin olive oil to the mix if appropriate, that seems to help the problem.
Most pasta and rice dishes (preferably homemade) are good foods to include in your balanced diet. Red meat (yes, it's good for you in moderation), white meat, fresh salad (again, homemade, best prepared just a few minutes before the meal), potatoes (surprisingly versatile, but don't bother with fries and chips/crisps), bread (which can be livened up by putting stuff in the middle), fish (though is low in protein).
Make your own. I've started baking my own bread, biscuits and cakes and invested in an ice-cream maker. Yes it takes more time, and the total ingredients for the bread cost more than the equivalent amount of ultra-processed loaves, but I know exactly what's gone into it. And my kids love helping. Not everyone has the time to make everything, but even if you only made one loaf a month that would be one loaf's worth fewer additives you ate. The ingredients don't come cheaper than the cheapest possible bread/biscuits/ice cream or whatever, but it does compare very well with the higher quality shop bought stuff.
Minimization of prepared dinners also helps. Fresh fruit, veg and meat are going to do you more good than a frozen dinner. Plan ahead and cook several portions at once (and avoid eating the whole pan full), freezing the rest for later. If you read the contents of prepared food, it can turn your stomach. It’s just not possible to add all those chemicals when you’re cooking for yourself!
Did you know that up to 60 additives go into a loaf of supermarket bread? That Mother's Pride isn't cooked in an oven? That all commercial bakeries have to be cleaned and washed down every day using industrial chemicals, made up largely of sulphides, traces of which inevitably get into the next day's bread? No wonder so many people have developed sensitivities and allergies.
Other Ways to Ensure a Balanced Diet
Too much salt hardens your arteries, but (in New Zealand at least) not enough can leave you short on iodine, for example.
Too much in the greater sense is the problem, when we take things to an extreme, too much or too little, then we pay for it in some way. Be it our waist line or our health, too much is the real problem.
I'd say the best method for health and weight control - or weight loss-is the old portion size...we all know (most of us) when we're eating too much - take a look at your plate - if it takes an effort to carry it-well you've got too much on it!
How much should you eat depends on how much your body needs. If you eat very little but don't have any health issue or don't feel tired/weak, be happy! If your job evolves lots of physical labour may be you need lots of fats/carbohydrates/sugar to burn. If you have a good physic and a healthy body, don't be over obsessed with dieting/fasting but maintain your good health by maintaining your balanced diet and exercise.
I would suggest that you practise the art of 'delayed gratification'. To many people, especially to Americans, this term is seen as foreign and intimidating. It means to delay or lessen the normal continuous pleasure, and therefore to increase the pleasure of special occasions (ie, when you allow yourself to eat chocolate once a week, instead of once a minute).
Moderation! Don't overeat, don't starve yourself, and listen to your body (and not to your brain screaming for chocolate). The occasional treat doesn't hurt, though, and helps keep you sane. Just don't overdo it. (A recent study said dark chocolate actually helps lower blood pressure somewhat. But it has to be dark, not milk chocolate or white chocolate.)
Eat a wide variety of foods. This helps you get all of the nutrients you need.
Go for the brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables like carrots, squash, tomatoes, berries, green beans and the like. The deeper the colour, the more nutrients it contains (in contrast to something like iceberg lettuce, which is pretty much crunchy green water).
Drink tea, especially green and white tea. It's good for you and has much less caffeine than coffee and cola drinks.
Speaking of drinking, drink plenty of water, especially in hot weather or if you exercise a lot.
A good multi-vitamin pill doesn't hurt. People who lead sedentary lives and watch their food intake often don't get enough vitamins and minerals through diet alone. And adults who avoid dairy products probably ought to take a calcium supplement.
I find that many of my friends who complain about being hungry all the time (invariably the same ones who are trying to loose weight) subsist on white bread, ramen noodles, minute-rice, and all other sorts of extremely "refined" and over processed foods. Okay, so they tease me for being a "granola munching hippie" but one thing is certain: I stay fuller from my humble bowl of granola or oatmeal than they do from their froot loops & pop-tarts - whole grain foods take longer to digest. I also prefer whole grain foods because since less of the plant has been thrown away you are getting more nutrients, naturally, which means that things don't have to be "enriched". And while I'm on my little soap box I'll add that whole grains add coveted protein to one's diet that many carb-bashers are touting nowadays; I do not think that carbohydrates would be so evil right now if we did not equate carbohydrates to Wonder Bread.
There's the old 'a little of what you fancy' - it's better to get a small serving of everything than restrict what you're eating too drastically. Allow yourself that little bit of cheese or chocolate - you might get some nutrients you need - especially with fruit and nut chocolate bars.
A balanced diet is a very personal thing. Some people cannot tolerate sugar or starch and some cannot tolerate dairy products and meat. There is no such thing as a one size solution. Each individual must determine which mix of food he must eat in order to gain the maximum nutritional benefit with the minimum risk to health.
Check the labels. Don't believe everything! '90% fat free' really means '10% fat', and most of the stuff that's 'No added sugar' has all sorts of other processed sweeteners in it.