This is a guest post from Samantha Olivier. Samantha has a B.Sc. in nutrition, and has spent two years working as a personal trainer. Since then, she has embarked on a mission to conquer the blogosphere. When not in the gym or on the track, you can find her on Ripped.me, or in a tea shop.
Balance is defined as “an even distribution of weight, enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”. This is rather not the kind of balance we are to talk about right now, but still, can the said principle be applied to the concept of a nutritional diet? The answer is – yes.
Everything comes down to balance when we talk about a healthy life, whether we are discussing sleep, rest, nutrition, exercise or something else entirely. Both a surplus or a lack of nutrients is bad because problems start to appear precisely when balance gets disrupted. It also can’t be achieved and maintained automatically, and we are the ones that need to make it happen. Our health mainly depends on nutrition, because food is the main source of our energy. Let’s dive in and see how you can manipulate your diet to your advantage!
What is a Balanced Diet?
A diet that provides your body with all the nutrients necessary for its proper functioning is called a balanced diet. This means, in practice, that the majority of your daily calories should be absorbed from fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and lean protein. In other words, in order to provide your body with optimum nutrition, your diet has to be made up of the right number of calories, contain food from all the major food groups, and the least possible amount of processed foods.
Essential nutrients, minerals, and vitamins are required in order for all the cells in your body to be able to function properly. All these nutritional essentials are provided through a diet that is well-balanced.
The definition really sounds simple, because it is. However, finding the right balance in your diet can be difficult if you don’t know what to pay attention to. Our metabolisms differ, meaning that there is no universal mathematical formula for a well-balanced diet – it needs to be “personalized”. What works for a stay-at-home mom with two kids who has no time to go to the gym, but manages to do some Pilates while the kids are occupied will have different needs than a semi-pro athlete who can bench more than 200 kilograms on a daily basis.
But if you manage to cover all food groups and have a diet low in sodium, saturated fats and sugar (the undesirable nutrients), be sure that you’re on the right track.
How to Achieve a Balanced Diet
In order to achieve balance, every meal you consume should be made up of foods from different food groups. You should eat a minimum of 3 moderate-portioned meals per day and limit your alcohol consumption (no more than 2 drinks a day for men, and 1 drink for women).
Another strong prerequisite for a balanced diet is the avoidance of bad fats (saturated and trans) and sugar, and a balance between physical activity and calorie intake. In other words, you have to achieve yet another balance.
If you work out, your diet needs to support your activities, and if you don’t, you again need to limit yourself to a certain number of calories per day. This is where the abovementioned personalization comes into play: once you calculate your baseline, you can tweak your calories accordingly, either up or down.
Being physically active is, of course, another important part of the ‘equation’, in order to stay fit and maintain a positive energy balance. You can often read that a moderate amount of exercise per week is all you need to stay healthy, and this is in fact true - you don’t need to go to the gym every day to maintain an optimal level of both fitness and health.
But let’s turn back to the topic at hand.
Components of a Balanced Diet
Protein and dairy
Lean meat, poultry (with visible fat), fish, lentils, eggs, beans, peas, seeds, and nuts are your sources of protein. Fish is also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon and sardine first and foremost), while meat is high in iron.
Dairy products are usually high in saturated fats and include foods like cheese, milk and yogurt. They are a valuable source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. In order to reduce fat intake and your calories, choose fat-free or low-fat varieties of dairy products, as well as low-fat cooking methods to bring the extra fat (fat added during food preparation by adding cooking oils, margarine, butter, sour cream and similar ingredients) to its minimum.
In case you were wondering, we are listing protein first because protein is the only building block of all your tissues, and without it, your organism would be unable to function. Protein is what enables your tissues to regenerate and your muscles to grow, which is why you need to supply your body with optimal amounts of this nutrient on a daily basis.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits are virtually fat-free, high in fiber, and very nutritious. We should include different kinds of fruits in our diet if we want to get the widest range of vitamins and minerals. Avoid consuming the sweetened varieties of juices and dried fruits and don’t exaggerate in portion sizes, because both are considered concentrated sources of calories.
Vegetables contain the least amount of calories and the most minerals and vitamins. Using low-fat cooking methods is advised for vegetable preparation as well, so make sure to grill or steam your veggies. Those who don’t manage to include as much vegetables in their everyday meals as they need or want to can make their own vegetable juices, or add grated or chopped vegetables to mixed dishes – pasta sauce, lasagna or burger mince.
Fruits and veggies are great for keeping your cardiovascular system healthy. They are amazing at regulating your blood pressure and keeping your cells young. They are also major boosters for your gastrointestinal health, which is, in turn, a major component of your overall health. There’s a reason why you have been made to eat Brussels sprouts at Christmas time!
Today, refined white flour is consumed more than any other grain. During the refining process, the hull of the grain (the outer shell where most of the nutrition lies) is removed, thus white foods contain poor nutritional value. Unlike refined white foods, whole grains are prepared using the entire grain.
Grains are the biggest source of carbs and include bread, pasta, cereals and rice. When compared to its white versions, the varieties of whole-grain food are higher in fiber and contain more B vitamins, and should be preferred. Sugary or toasted bread and sweetened bread are higher in calories and fat and should be avoided.
Fats and oils
There are good and bad fats. Fats can’t be avoided altogether because they are necessary for the body to function properly. Thus, removing bad fats from your diet is what you are to aim for. Replace saturated and trans fats with vegetable fats, and keep their intake to a minimum because of their high caloric value. Low-fat or light salad dressings, nuts, avocado, and fish are great alternative sources of unsaturated fats.
Fats are present in the membranes of all cells in your organism and are also one of the key components of your brain and entire nervous system. They are one of the building blocks of hormones and in their turn influence vital processes in the body, such as blood clotting, blood pressure levels, immune system functions and muscle contractions.
Each particular nutrition variable has its own position in the process of energy fluctuation (intake and depletion). They are not all of equal importance, so balancing them out is necessary for achieving an optimal state of well-being. Nutrition variables have to be adjusted in the right sequence as well. Besides nutrition, the main variables when it comes to body composition are – lifestyle, exercise, recovery, and supplementation – all these variables dictate your body’s nutritional needs.
Let’s explain this with an example - take a construction worker and an office worker of the same height and weight. The former will need to eat more calories than the later, even if they have the same working hours. The reason behind this is that their daily activities differ greatly, and while the construction worker is exerting himself, and burning more fuel, the office worker is locked to his seat, therefore spending a lot less. They will not achieve the same results, even if they eat and train the same. In fact, it will do one of them serious harm.
This is where the difference in lifestyle comes in, and this is why you need to design your balanced diet. You can’t just take mine. Almost every aspect of your life has a bearing on what you should be eating. If you don’t get enough sleep, or if you are on a supplementation regimen, you need to eat accordingly.
Do you want to gain weight and pump some muscles in your late twenties? You’ll have to eat more by following your weight gain meal plan, but also work out more. Do you want to lose weight and keep your body at optimal fitness levels? Then you should create a negative energy balance (which leads to weight loss). Be sure not to go too extreme and keep your body in that state for too long, because a severe negative energy balance can cause reductions in testosterone levels and physical performance, decreases in bone mass, inability to concentrate, and a decline in metabolism.
Proper nutrition allows your metabolism to work at its best, recover properly, prevent infections, diseases, and obesity, and increase the overall quality of your lifestyle.
Rule Out Extra Calories
If you’re counting every single calorie you take, you should stop because there is no way to know the exact number and you definitely eat more calories than you think. We tend to see ‘low-calorie’ as ‘healthy’, but calories are not the sole aspect of food that matters.
For example, you’ve made yourself a nice salad and you want to add a bit of vinegar or olive oil. But 2 tablespoons of it contain more about 200 calories! This does not mean you should refrain from adding it - olive oil is very good for you, in fact.
Also, don’t trust calorie and nutrition labels because they’re inaccurate and the calorie content of processed foods can vary up to 20% from the number that is listed on the label. If the major part (about 80%) of your nutrition comes from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole wheat cereal, the rest of it can be comprised of whichever foods you favor the most – as long as it fits into your daily caloric needs.
Also, exclude empty calories to balance your diet. If you’re in a hurry early in the morning because you’re late to a business meeting, and you haven’t really slept much the night before, don’t fill yourself up with energy drinks, sodas, and lattes. Besides your caffeine fix, you’ll consume great amounts of sugar and calories as well. When in need of caffeine, drink green tea or a strong black coffee.
Many turn to athletes when in need of inspiration, and jump directly into a professional athlete's regimen, and get anxious when they can’t follow it. If you are not a professional athlete, do not try to train like one. It takes a special kind of determination and lifestyle to achieve stellar sporting results. In fact - you do not even need to do so.
And just like you should never take a leaf out of an athlete’s book when it comes to working out, you shouldn’t adopt their diet either. As we have already established, your diet needs to support your lifestyle, not the other way around.
Eating healthy may sound difficult. You may believe that it is limiting and overwhelming. In reality, if you are familiar with the basic concepts, you can easily adapt. Yes, you may need to spend some time to prepare your meals, and you may not always be able to grab a snack on the go and feel no consequences, but if you achieve the right balance, there will be room in your life for your favorite “bad” food as well.
Once you have managed to balance out your daily, weekly and monthly meals, your body will soon start showing its gratitude, and you will be well on your way to achieving your next goal, whatever it may be!