What Does Eating a "Balanced Diet" Really Mean?
You've heard it before: Eating a balanced diet is important for your health.
But, as far as adjectives go, "balanced" is a bit relative — especially when paired with something as complex as your diet. A red apple is red (duh), but a balanced diet is...what exactly?
"When we talk about a balanced diet, we're talking about eating foods in the proportions that help your body function optimally," says Angela Snyder, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "Different nutrients benefit our bodies in different ways, and we need some of these nutrients in larger (or smaller) amounts than others.
For instance, as much as we'd love to eat as many chips and queso as we do vegetables, our bodies don't need equal amounts of these foods.
Yet a balanced diet is important nonetheless, and it should be something we each strive toward — whether we hit the mark every day or not.
What is a balanced diet?
Okay — we know it's not a burger and fries or an entire bowl of queso and chips.
So, what does a balanced diet look like?
Here are the five principles to creating a balanced plate:
- Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits. Choose nonstarchy veggies, such as broccoli, asparagus, squash, carrots, mushrooms, leafy greens and more. Just keep in mind — not all veggies are created equal. Avoid common veggie mistakes, such as eating excessive amounts of starchy vegetables like white potatoes.
- Add a quarter-plate of whole grains. To ensure you get plenty of fiber, B vitamins, and to help better regulate your blood sugar, swap simple carbohydrates with whole, intact grains like whole-wheat bread and pasta, quinoa, oats or brown rice.
- Add a quarter-plate of lean protein. Aim for something lean, such as skinless chicken, seafood, turkey, eggs, beans or soy-based options like tofu. Eat red meat sparingly and limit processed meats, like sausages and bacon.
- Keep saturated fats, cholesterol and added sugars to a minimum. First, know that you don't need to avoid fats completely. Aim for moderate amounts of healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and avocado, and avoid the not-as-healthy alternatives like fried foods and high-fat meats. As for added sugars, limit these to fewer than 100 calories per day.
- Don't let your portion sizes bust your daily calorie intake. On average, your daily calories should fall around the 2,000-calorie range — give or take. But know that your range can vary significantly based on your age, gender, activity level and weight-loss goals. Determine how many calories you should be aiming for per day and be sure each plate of food accommodates that range.
A balanced diet also means thinking about how you're snacking between meals.
"Many on-the-go snack options are highly processed — containing either unhealthy fats, refined (added) sugar or excess salt that won't keep you full until your next meal," warns Snyder. "When choosing a snack, keep the above principles in mind and scale the portion back to snack-size."
For instance, a well-balanced snack could look like:
- One cup of plain Greek yogurt topped with fruit
- Bell pepper slices with a quarter-cup of hummus
Why is a balanced diet important?
Adopting and/or maintaining a healthier, balanced diet is a day-to-day choice that can be hard. To make it more palatable, it helps to know why making healthy choices matters.
"When we think about food, we often focus on how it tastes and how to make eating an enjoyable experience. But — at its core — food is a necessity of life. We need it for energy and the nutrients that help our bodies grow, repair and stay strong," explains Snyder. "A balanced diet includes the foods that your body needs in the right quantities, and limits the processed, refined foods it doesn't."
This is important since deficiencies in certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals can affect your brain, immune system, bones, muscles and organs.
On the flip side, empty calories and excessive amounts of the foods your body doesn't need, such as added sugars, unhealthy fats and cholesterol, can lead to weight gain, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and more.
"You need a certain amount of calories to fulfill your energy needs throughout the day, but it's best if these calories also have the nutrients your body needs like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to keep function at its best," explains Snyder.
And, unfortunately, that chips and queso just doesn't quite offer your body much more than (a lot of) calories.
How to eat a balanced diet — 10 quick tips
- Regularly remind yourself what a balanced plate looks like (see above)
- Aim for variety on your plate — no single food has everything you need
- There's no such thing as eating too many nonstarchy veggies
- Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary drinks
- High-fiber foods can help fill you up and keep you feeling full longer
- When you just don't have the time, embrace healthy slow cooker meal ideas
- Know how to make your own easy, healthy lunch — and do so more days than not
- Remember that your snacks should be healthy, too
- Make indulgent meals and snacks a reward, not a regularity, and eat them in reduced portions
- Look for low-calorie alternatives to the less healthful foods you enjoy