Most of us do our best to eat right. We know enough these days to know what to avoid and what to include in our diets. The idea of a balanced diet is so common we scarcely notice the words anymore. And we think we do what is necessary to maintain a balanced diet.
But what makes up a balanced diet? How many of us really know what this means? Beyond the things we read online, hear from our doctors, and learned as children, the exact nature of a balanced diet may be a little more intricate than we imagine.
A balanced diet involves weighing the correct amounts of vitamins, nutrients, and calories against your activity level and other factors. A balanced diet also involves paying attention to your carb, fat, and cholesterol intake. Maintaining a balanced diet does not require complex math and planning. Just making sure you include components of some basic food groups will ensure that you are eating a balanced diet.
This guide will explore just exactly what is a balanced diet. Why is a balanced diet important? And how do you maintain a balanced diet?
What is a Balanced Diet?
Put simply, a balanced diet is one that provides your body with all the basic nutrients you need to function properly. A balanced diet generally consists of healthy portions of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and lean proteins.
From these foods, you should gain a specific number of calories. A calorie is really just a unit of measurement of energy that fuels your metabolism. You need calories to do just about anything: walking, thinking, breathing—all of these baseline functions require calories.
On average, a person requires about 2000 calories a day in order to maintain their weight. However, this number can vary according to age, gender, and physical activity. Men usually require more calories than women, and people who exercise regularly require more calories than those who tend to be sedentary.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, these are the general guidelines for how many calories a person requires:
- Children ages 2- 8 years: 1000-4000 calories
- Girls ages 9- 13 years: 1400-1600 calories
- Boys ages 9 -13 years: 1600- 2000 calories
- Active women ages 14- 30 years: 2400 calories
- Sedentary women ages 14- 30 years: 1800- 200 calories
- Active men ages 14- 30 years: 2800- 3200 calories
- Sedentary men ages 14- 30 years: 2000- 1600 calories
- Active men and women over 30 years: 2000- 3000 calories
We should note that the source of your calories is just as important as the number of calories. It is possible to consume calories that have no nutritional value. These are called empty calories and are found in foods that consist primarily of sugars and fats. Processed “junk food” generally contains empty calories.
Below is a list of items which contain little more than empty calories:
- Bacon and sausages
- Energy drinks
- Fruit drinks
- Ice cream
- Sports drinks and soda
You can see that these are common items. While these food items are satisfying, they have little nutritional value and do not make up part of a balanced diet.
Why is a Balanced Diet important?
A balanced diet is important because your organs, tissues, and basic metabolic functions require proper nutrition in order to function. If you do not maintain a balanced diet, you become prone to a host of diseases and health conditions. Children who do not have a proper diet can suffer growth and developmental problems, they can suffer poor academic performance, and these eating habits can follow them all their lives.
We have seen an epidemic of morbid obesity and diabetes in the United States, and these are a direct result of a poor diet and not eating a balanced diet. The Centers of Science in the Public Interest have shown that 4 of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States are the direct result of poor diet. These conditions include:
- Heart disease
Most of these problems can be avoided by maintaining a balanced and healthy diet.
How to Achieve a Balanced Diet
The key features of a balanced diet consist of foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. At the same time, a balanced diet requires that you avoid foods that contain large amounts of unnecessary fats and sugars.
The basic ingredients of a balanced diet consist of the following food groups:
Fruits: Fruits are naturally high in vitamins and other valuable nutrients. They are also great snacks as opposed to junkie sweets and processed foods. Fruits are naturally high in sugar without containing the added processed sugars that contribute so easily to the problems of obesity.
Vegetables: These are the primary sources of vitamins and minerals. Dark leafy greens are extremely healthy. Some examples include:
- Green beans
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
All of the vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and even antioxidants.
Most Americans consume processed white flour as a source of grains. Unfortunately, processed white flour is a poor source of nutrition because the hull of the grain is removed during processing. The majority of the nutritional value of grain is contained in the hull.
Processed white flour is a refined carbohydrate and is not recommended as part of a balanced diet. Whole grains are far more nutritious. Try switching over to whole-grain bread and other whole-grain foods such as pasta as sources of a balanced diet.
The main sources of proteins are meats and beans. Proteins are essential for muscle and brain development. The most healthy options include lean, low-fat meats such as fish, chicken, and pork. You can cut down on cholesterol by removing the skin from chicken. Since the health of the animals is just as important for a balanced diet, it is best to choose grass-fed meats.
There are a variety of plant-based proteins to choose from. These sources of protein also contain the added benefit of fiber.
Some options include:
- Sunflower seeds
You can also include soy-based proteins such as tofu and tempeh. These make healthy meat alternatives.
These provide calcium, vitamin D, and other important nutrients for a balanced diet. You should be careful with dairy products because they also tend to be high in fat. There are plenty of reduced-fat versions of milk, cheese, and yogurt. You can also substitute with soy and almond milk that is fortified with vitamin D and calcium.
Use these in small amounts. While olive oil does contain nutrients, it is also high in fats and can become a source of empty calories.
The United States Department of Agriculture has a full checklist online to help you understand a detailed breakdown of how much of each of the above groups will offer you a balanced diet.
In addition to making sure you include foods from these groups for a balanced diet, there is also a list of foods to avoid.
These are foods that contain ingredients that negate the benefits of a balanced diet. This list includes:
- Refined grains
- Solid fats
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
Balanced Diet Chart
The contents of a balanced diet are determined by research supported by the FDA. This research takes account of the most current understandings of food science and medicine. A healthy plate should generally consist of the following items:
- Fruits and Vegetables
Include color and variety. By choosing from the various colors of fruits and vegetables you are likely to cover a wide range of nutrients since the color of fruits and vegetables is often derived from the mineral content. At least half of your plate should include fruits and vegetables. Remember that potatoes do not count as a vegetable. They are primarily starch and can have a negative effect on things like blood sugar levels.
- Whole Grains
About one-quarter of your plate should include whole grains. Quinoa, oats, and brown rice are great choices that are easily available. Whole wheat pasta is another good option. Avoid foods made with processed white flour. These can also negatively impact blood sugar levels and upset insulin balance.
Proteins should take up one-quarter of your plate. Stick with fish, poultry, and nuts as protein sources. Although lean meats are good sources of proteins, they can also be difficult for the body to process. Avoid processed meats like bacon and sausage.
- Healthy plant-based oils
These healthy oils include olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and peanut oils. Avoid partially hydrogenated oils and anything that includes tans fats. Always keep in mind that the label “low fat” does not necessarily mean healthy.
- Drink water, coffee, or tea
Avoid sugary drinks, including soda. Keep milk and other dairy products to one serving per day. Also, limit juices to one small glass a day since these contain high amounts of sugar.
In addition to being vigilant about a healthy plate, staying active is a crucial component of good health.
Balanced Diet FAQS
What is a balanced diet?
A balanced diet simply means eating food that provides a range of the essential nutrients your body requires to function properly. It is important to ensure a variety of foods and a variety of items from each group of foods. Part of a balanced diet means not eating too much of any one thing. Eating too much of one type of food can produce health problems. For example, healthy fats a necessary feature of a balanced diet. Eating too much healthy fat will result in an accumulation of fat and this contributes to obesity.
How do you benefit from a balanced diet?
One of the most obvious and immediate benefits of a balanced diet is weight control. It is much easier to stay fit while maintaining a balanced diet. Overall, a balanced diet will help you avoid health problems like heart disease, diabetes, several types of cancer, and even helps fight depression. A healthy and balanced diet will maintain energy levels and fight fatigue. A balanced diet, combined with an active lifestyle, will help you live longer.
How do you achieve a balanced diet?
Some general rules for achieving a balanced diet avoid all processed foods, avoid anything that contains added sugar, and avoid processed fats and trans fats. Reduce your intake of all sugars. Make sure you include foods from the groups discussed above: fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats.
How important are fruits and vegetables?
A sizable portion of fruits and vegetables are essential to a balanced diet. As we saw above, roughly half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. Always include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. And remember, simply using a variety of colors will ensure that you are getting as many of the essential nutrients as possible from fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are crucial for everything from the most basic biological functions to healthy hair and nails.
Wrapping things up
Most of us are taught the basics of a balanced diet as children. This is just one of those things that get instilled in us at an early age. But just as many of us stray from eating a balanced diet for a host of reasons. The busy lives we lead today can make it difficult to pay attention to our diets, and this can lead us to start relying on things like fast food and unhealthy snacks.
The fact remains, a balanced diet is central to good health. Exercise and staying active are important aspects of a healthy lifestyle. But without a balanced diet, these things do not have the benefit they could. Simply eating the right foods in the correct quantities is the first step toward maintaining our health.
And again, achieving and maintaining a balanced diet does not require advanced science. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, and avoid processed foods and added sugar. These are the most elemental features of a balanced diet.
Achieving and maintaining a balanced diet just requires paying a little attention to what we eat and how much we eat. Cover the bases of the food groups detailed above, avoid sugars and fats, and stay active. These are the key features of a balanced diet.