How to Get Started on a Balanced Diet
A weekend of “bad” eating has come and gone and now it is Monday and you decide I am going to eat “good”. This mindset presents a struggle because there is no definition of what is truly a “good” diet. With never ending research on nutrition, the definition of a healthy diet can be unclear to most. There was a time that egg yolk was one of the unhealthiest foods and now it is recommended to eat the yolk. While we can never predict what future research will show us, we can gain a bit more clarity on what a healthy diet can look like. What if we switched our language and decided “today I want to follow a balanced diet”. This takes out the perception that certain foods are bad and good, and instead focuses on all foods. A balanced diet is one that gives your body the nutrients it needs to function correctly and is also good for your mental health. There are many factors that go into following a balanced diet and it may be a struggle at first to find what works best for you.
A balanced, varied diet is important to allow your body to work properly. Every macronutrient and micronutrient is important in the daily functions of your body. Carbohydrates provide direct energy to your cells. Protein helps build muscle. Fats allow the absorption of many vitamins. These functions are generally known to most but this also only skims the surface of what these nutrients do for us. In macro nutrients, micronutrients are found. Micronutrients aid in energy production, immune function, blood clotting, bone health and much more. A balanced diet can help ensure you are consuming enough nutrients to allow proper body function. Without proper nutrition, your training suffers and you are more prone to disease and fatigue. To help feel our best, we must work to eat a properly balanced diet.
The foods you eat will determine whether you are consuming a balanced diet or not. That being said, variety is a key factor in this. If you choose to only eat broccoli and banana as your fruit and vegetables, you will be missing the nutrients found in orange, purple and white foods. These all contain different nutrients you need to keep you healthy. It is common to hear health professionals say to “Make your plate colorful”. The reason for this phrase is that it helps ensure your plate has varied nutrients. The following food groups are important parts of a balanced diet.
Fruits are a great source of nutrition, filled with antioxidants, natural sugar and fiber. Studies have shown that those who eat fruit are likely to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases. Many fruits are rich in potassium such as bananas, avocados, prunes, or oranges. Potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure. The fiber in fruit helps lower cholesterol levels and improve bowel function. Vitamin C found in many citrus fruits helps heal cuts and wounds and keeps your teeth healthy! Many do not consume enough of these nutrients, eating a variety of fruits can help!
Vegetables are another important part of a healthy diet. Similar to fruit, they are a great source of nutrients and fiber. Vegetables are also lower in calories allowing you to eat more and feel full for fewer calories than other foods. The recommendation of vegetables per day is one to four cups. Green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and swiss chard were most strongly associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. An increase intake of vegetables has also shown improvement in vision and protection against cancer. Making simple switches can help increase your intake such as instead of crackers choose carrots or use a lettuce leaf instead of a wrap. Try incorporating a salad every day with a meal. These small but powerful changes can help create a more balanced diet.
The next food group to include is grains, specifically whole grains. Whole grains include brown rice, amaranth, bulgur, kamut, millet, quinoa, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, wholemeal and whole grain breads, barley, buckwheat and muesli. There are so many options to try! Whole grains contain protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins. When you process grains, some of the nutrients are lost. The typical recommendation for a grain is about three to six servings. Since grains can come in different forms, it can be difficult to measure. Here are some examples of what a serving looks like; one slice of bread, ½ cup cooked rice, oats, pasta or other grain, or thirty grams of breakfast cereal. Whole grains also have phytochemicals that may protect against some cancers. They are a great source of carbohydrates allowing you to have sufficient energy throughout the day.
The next food group is protein, the food group everyone tries to eat more of and for good reason! Consuming protein has been shown to reduce appetite and hunger levels. Pairing a protein with your snacks allows for longer satiety. Instead of just grabbing some chips try pairing it with hummus or try banana and peanut butter. These combinations help stop mindless snacking. Eating more protein has also been shown to help boost metabolism. This is due to the higher thermic effect protein has. Protein needs vary based on activity level. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends for active individuals between 1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight. Animal sources of protein include meat, chicken, fish and eggs. Plant based proteins such as lentils, beans, peas, seeds, tofu, tempeh or seitan are also great sources of protein and contain fiber! Make sure to include a variety in your diet and a serving with each meal to help meet protein needs.
Fats are another essential part of your diet as they provide your body energy, protect your organs, help keep your body warm, help your body absorb some nutrients and produce hormones. There are four different types of fat that we eat. Saturated and trans fat are the types of fat that tend to increase your bad (LDL) cholesterol. Foods that include these fats are butter, sausages, hot dogs, baked goods, and fried foods. These are the foods you would want to limit. The unsaturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are the “good” fats you read about such as avocado, olive oil or seed oil. Fats also provide satiety to your meal. Drizzle your veggies with olive oil or add avocado to your sandwiches to add some healthy fats to your diet.
These are all important components to a balanced diet. If you do not know where to start try dividing your plate each time you eat so that you know all of these components are included. For example, half of your plate should include fruits and/or vegetables, a quarter protein and a quarter whole grains. This is how a balanced plate would ideally be set up. With that being said, we all know that every meal is not going to look perfectly balanced. In many articles about eating a balanced diet you will read basically everything as above. The one part of a balanced diet I believe is missing from these articles is to actually include your sweets and treats.
When wanting to transition to a balanced diet, do not go into it thinking you cannot eat a treat or you must avoid outings with friends. It is possible to incorporate treats into a balanced diet and the reason why you should in fact do this is to avoid restricting and then overeating. It is typical for one to try and commit to a diet and instantly vow to never touch sugar again. What then typically happens is you give in and end up eating more sugar than you normally would. The best way to incorporate treats with a balanced diet is using moderation. Choose your treat and portion it out. If it is chips, pour the chips in a bowl rather than eat from the bag. Try to eat slower and allow yourself to enjoy the treat. Sometimes it tastes so good we end up eating fast and wonder where it all went. Then we pour more out. Eating slower can help avoid this. In addition to eating slower, try to check in on your hunger/ satisfaction. In the middle of your treat, think to yourself did I have enough? Am I satisfied? Am I still hungry? If you feel satisfied, feel free to put the rest of the treat back in the bag. In this instance, you ate what you wanted but also practiced mindfulness, which is a big accomplishment! If you are still not satisfied, feel free to keep eating the treat or think to yourself what will help make you satisfied? Should you add a little bit of guacamole on the side? Or are you looking for something other than food? There are many reasons we eat and hunger is not always one of them. Practice getting in tune with yourself to see what it is you truly need at that moment. It could be instead of chocolate you need a moment of quiet to relax. A balanced diet works if you practice moderation and mindfulness. Include each food group listed above as well as a treat here and there. If your meals are not appetizing to you or you feel frustrated, take a deep breath. Remember the point of a balanced diet is to enjoy all foods while nourishing our bodies correctly. Finding a proper balance for you can take time. Keep at it, balance your meals with your food groups and practice moderation with your treats!