What is Balanced Diet - Importance, Food Groups, Food Pyramid & More
The Internet is flooded with tons of articles full of conflicting information on the “Balanced diet”. By definition, “a balanced diet is the diet containing an appropriate proportion of foods from all food groups.” But who knows what the food groups are and what actually is the appropriate proportion?
What Is a Balanced Diet?
A balanced diet is not about strict limitations or refraining from your favorite foods. The concept basically revolves around the idea of the correct amount of nutrients required to carry out optimal body functions from all food groups. Well, that’s pretty much obvious from the name, yet it is confusing to many of us.
Different organizations from all parts of the world have proposed methods to simplify the concept of a balanced diet as per their cultures and norms. We will here try to make it as simple and adaptable as we can, discussing all the possible ways to help you make the right choices.
Why a balanced diet?
To convince oneself to adopt a healthy eating pattern, the answer to “why?” is really important. Why would someone prefer a fruit in place of yummier dessert? Or Why to include greens in your daily meals? Well, the answer to your first question is you don’t have to. Sounds interesting, no?
The sole purpose of so much emphasis on “balanced diet" is to attain optimal growth and to keep the body healthy. Prevention is always better than cure. The right balance of nutrients helps us attain sound mental as well as physical health, ideal weight, and optimal growth.
What to eat?
A balanced diet answers two questions, first what to eat? And secondly How much to eat? It allows the intake of foods from all food groups in the right amounts. For instance, let’s have a look at your plate at lunchtime. Let’s say it includes a chapatti, a yummy chicken karahi, made by your mum, sprinkled with love, accompanied with some cucumber, onions, and a salad leaf cut very neatly into small pieces for you and some yogurt (no doubt so much effort is being put in and whoever prepared it deserves appreciation). It covers five out of seven food groups, but whether it is in the correct amount or not?
You have come across this term many times even in this article and must be wondering “what in the world is that now”. To make it easier for people, our everyday food is divided into seven groups: Bread and cereal group, Meat and egg group, Milk and dairy products, Fruits, Vegetables, Sugar and sweets, and Oils and fats. Although sometimes fruits and vegetables are considered one group.
Bread and cereal group
It includes all forms of bread and cereals we may eat e.g. chapatti, rice, bread, oats, porridge, biscuits, pasta, etc. One should fill one-third of the plate with this and as a whole most part of the diet is based on the members of this food group.
The wholegrains are always the preferable option if you are concerned about your health. Otherwise, this group may include some unhealthy options like refined flour products as well. But, if eaten in the suggested quantity may be less harmful.
Much to your surprise, our favorite “Potatoes” are also included in this category as they are packed with carbohydrates and are the staple food in some regions. The potatoes when eaten with skin contain more fiber, more vitamins, and more minerals.
Fruits and vegetable
Adequate consumption of fruits and vegetables helps in cutting back on unhealthy snacking by increasing the feeling of satiety and lesser cravings.. Fruit and vegetables are low in calories and nutrient-dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber making them the healthiest munching option.
Meat and eggs
These foods are rich in protein and fats, which are again essential for the body to grow and repair itself. They also provide ample amounts of vitamins and minerals, including iron and vitamin B12.
The good sources of protein which contains several vitamins and minerals are eggs and fish. Oily fish are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Milk and dairy products
Milk and dairy products, such as butter, cheese, and yogurt, are good sources of protein, and calcium, as well as sugars and fats which play a vital role in keeping your body healthy. A portion of your diet has to be based on ingredients from milk and dairy products to meet the requirements.
Fats and oils
Some fat in the diet is essential, but on average people in Pakistan eat too much-saturated fat in the form of Desi ghee. Desi ghee ka paratha with fried egg followed by tea or lassi in Punjab has been a favorite breakfast for ages. Surely the diet is not a deficit of the members of this group. But choose wisely for your own good.
Sugar and sweets
Told you, you don’t need to swap your dessert with fruit. You only have to limit the intake. Instead of eating a gallon of ice cream in one sitting try eating smaller portions. This way it’ll last longer and you can eat your ice cream daily for a few days. Trust me!
Where to place nuts, legumes, and pulses?
Pulses, including beans, peas, and lentils, are naturally very low in fat and high in carbohydrates (sugars), fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Therefore, they can be categorized as cereal as well as lean protein and be placed in both groups. Nuts also belong to the legume family and contain high levels of essential fat. Nuts are placed in a meat group as they provide more or less similar nutrients.
Serving size is a very important factor in your diet. The serving size is not a recommendation of how much you should eat or drink but rather a more generalized amount of food. Proper knowledge of serving sizes is necessary to follow a balanced diet. Serving sizes of different food groups are as follows
Bread and cereals
1 slice of bread, 1 small chapatti (40g or 8”), ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal.
1 medium-sized apple, banana, orange, peach, etc.
2-3 kiwi, plum, apricots
8-10 grapes or berries
½ cup fruit juice
1 cup raw-cut vegetable
½ cup cooked vegetable
½ cup vegetable juice
Meat and poultry
2 oz. Meat
1 egg or 2 egg whites
1 cup milk
¾ cup yogurt
2 oz. Cheese
A food pyramid is a pyramidal representation of the correct number of servings to be eaten in twenty-four (24) hours from each of the basic food groups in order to maintain a balanced diet. In the food pyramid, the bread and cereals are in place in the lowest and widest compartment, representing the most number of servings and vice versa. This is an easier way to count the right portion of different foods. It suggests
- 6-7 servings from the bread and cereal group (1 serving is 1 slice of bread or 1 8” chapatti)
- 2-3 servings of meat group and milk group each
- 3-4 items from fruits and vegetable groups each
- 0-1 serving of fats and oils and sugar and sweets groups each
Healthy eating plate/ my plate
A healthy eating plate or my plate depicts the idea of how your meal should look like. It suggests
- Filling half of your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables
- A quarter should be bread or cereal, the whole the better
- The other quarter is protein, anything from meat, eggs, fish, or pulses. Again, the leaner the better
- Some amount of healthy oil to enhance the flavor
- A drink of your choice. But avoid too sugary drinks
The term nutrients are defined as “any substance essential for optimal growth and body function.” It can be categorized into macro and micronutrients. Macronutrients are those required in larger amounts than micronutrients and include carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Whereas, micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. I believe that’s enough scientific information for you to digest.
I wonder who is not familiar with the term “calories”. In our society, the diet-conscious fraternity often uses the term calories to refer to diet. Either as “I’m on a calorie deficit diet” or “No, I can’t eat this as it contains a lot of calories”
Calorie basically is the amount of energy a nutrient or food may provide when metabolized. And weight maintenance gain or loss is closely associated with calorie counting. The right amount of calories helps you maintain a healthy weight, lower helps you reduce a few pounds, and similarly more than your needs will lead to weight gain.
Calorie counting can help attain a balanced diet. A specific percentage of calories must come from each nutrient as per your body's needs.
It is suggested to cover 45-65% of your caloric requirement from carbohydrates commonly known as “carbs”.
15-20% of the total calories may come from fats and oils. This may sound like a lot, but only your dietitian knows how less it is.
Protein and micronutrients
Proteins and micronutrients majorly contribute to maintaining optimal health. Yet proteins provide 4 kcal/g of protein and can meet your caloric requirements.
For calorie counting and maintaining a balanced diet, you should seek help from a registered dietitian or nutritionist. They will help you with planning your diet based on your caloric requirements.
Importance of a balanced diet
As we have discussed earlier, a balanced diet is based on the correct proportions of different foods from each food group to attain well-being. The proper balance of nutrients in your diet will result in overall better health and functioning. Adopting a balanced diet plan is important as
- Balanced diet somewhat assures the presence of the required amounts of all nutrients in the diet according to RDAs
- Right amount of different food will help you maintain a healthy weight
- Prevent various chronic diseases
- A large portion of the diet is suggested to be based on fresh fruits and vegetables, which means good amounts of phytochemicals and antioxidants. These play a vital role in disease prevention
- Besides the prevention of diseases overall optimal health can be maintained
How to maintain a balanced diet
Here are a few tips and tricks to adopt and maintain a balanced diet
- First of all, know and understand the main concept of a balanced diet. For this purpose search and save the articles and blogs on this topic.
- Gain knowledge of serving sizes of different foods and prepare your meals accordingly
- Prepare healthier and tastier recipes to cover all food groups. Try to cook your meals and take charge of what goes on your plate. This way you can build your plate according to the guidelines.
- Don’t skip your meals. This way you can keep a balance of calories in your meals.
- Try to incorporate nuts and salads in your snacks.
- A fruit/fruit smoothie (without added sugar) can help satisfy the cravings for desserts and sweets.
- Instead of boiling or steaming your greens, try grilling, roasting, or pan-frying them with chili flakes, and garlic or marinating them in tangy lemon or lime before cooking. This way they will taste a lot better.
A balanced diet in a nutshell
To summarize balanced diet is based on three things
- Right amount of food
- Right proportion of nutrients
- Right choice of food
You keep following this principle and nothing can stop you from achieving better health. Last but definitely not least, workout and physical activity go hand in hand with the right diet. None of these alone can provide all the benefits.