What is a Balanced Diet?
Eating a balanced diet means choosing a wide variety of foods and drinks from all the food groups. It also means eating certain things in moderation, namely saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, refined sugar, salt and alcohol. The goal is to take in nutrients you need for health at the recommended levels.
Where to Begin
Two examples of a balanced eating pattern are the USDA Food Guide at MyPyramid.gov and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH Diet).
Both eating patterns emphasize fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as low or no-fat dairy products, and lean animal proteins. Fish is recommended at least two times per week, beans, nuts and seeds are encouraged, and unsaturated fats are always the fats of choice - like olive oil.
What About Calories?
Your balanced diet must be planned at your own calorie level, and portion size is key. You want to get the most nutrients for the calories by choosing food with a high-nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meat and fish, and whole grains and beans. Low-nutrient dense foods have few vitamins but lots of calories, such as candy bars, soda, donuts and onion rings.
A high nutrient-dense lunch would look something like this:
2 slices whole wheat bread
1 slice roasted red pepper
1 tsp mayonnaise
8 oz non-fat milk
A low nutrient-dense lunch would look something like this:
One ground beef hamburger patty
Two hamburger buns
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1 slice American cheese
Order of French fries, fried in peanut oil
Large regular soda
What really matters, though, is knowing yourself. You need to make responsible eating choices within the context of your preferences and lifestyle. What are your goals? Which food groups do you like to eat? Which food groups are missing? Do you eat too much sugar, salt and fried food? Which foods are the contributors and what foods can you eat instead? The locus of control rests within you to design the best eating plan for you. Eating healthy takes planning and practice. Keep your balance.
A Differing Opinion
Nutrition guidelines recommend eating a wide variety of foods. But, there's a school of thought that eating variety of foods leads to overeating. There's "the tendency to stay hungry longer and eat more food when flavors are diverse and keep changing", according to Dr. David Katz, who maintains that we "fill up on fewer calories when flavor variety is controlled". You've seen this principle in action when you come home with a load of groceries. Don't you want to sample the wide variety of tasty foods?
- Katz DL, Gonzales M. Way to Eat: A Six-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control Sourcebooks, 2004
- The United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005
- The United States Department of Agriculture
- The National Institutes of Health, Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure with DASH www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/new_dash.pdf
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