What does a balanced diet actually mean, and how can I achieve it? Answering these questions can be hard, particularly if you are trying to lose weight or improve your health.
Yet, with careful planning – as well as help from the right supplements where necessary, such as vitamins and the best protein powders – it is possible to have a healthy, balanced diet and stay fit, strong and well.
Every five years the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS (opens in new tab)) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA (opens in new tab)) publish an updated version of their Dietary Guidelines (opens in new tab), which is used as the standard guidance for healthy eating.
“A healthy eating routine is important at every stage of life and can have positive effects that add up over time,” says a spokesperson for the USDA. “By following a balanced diet that aligns with the Dietary Guidelines, individuals can reduce their risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.”
What does a balanced diet actually mean?
According to Grace Derocha, a dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (opens in new tab), a balanced diet is one that fulfils an individual’s nutritional needs in order to help them maintain good health and a healthy weight.
“Humans need a certain amount of calories (macronutrients) and nutrients (micronutrients) to stay healthy,” she says. “A balanced diet provides all the nutrients and energy a person requires, without going over the recommended daily calorie intake. It contains the right amounts of a variety of food groups for your body.”
The five food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy – are essentially what make up the components of a balanced diet, although the amount of each food each person needs to consume can vary based on their age, weight, sex, height and activity level.
“The MyPlate Plan (opens in new tab) is a great tool individuals can use to find out what and how much of each of the five food groups they should be consuming, based on their lifestyle,” says a spokesperson for the USDA.
Where does the term 'balanced diet' come from?
We hear a lot about “a balanced diet” but where does the term come from? It dates back to the 15th century and the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Sacchi, aka Il Platina, who could be said to have written the first bestselling diet book, De Honesta voluptate et valetudine.
“High society became obsessed with his recommendations regarding the relationship between gastronomic pleasure (voluptae) and health (valedutine),” says Derocha. However, it is How to Live One Hundred Years – Discourses on the Sober Life (1558) by Alvise (Luigi) Cornaro that continues to be cited today.
“After realising the risks he was taking with his self-indulgent lifestyle, this Venetian aristocrat adopted a frugal diet and lived to become a centenarian,” says Derocha. “His book makes reference to the ancient writers and thus revives the Ancient Greek principles of moderation to show that a healthy lifestyle starts with a healthy diet.”
How difficult is it to achieve a balanced diet?
Although it requires effort, once a balanced diet becomes part of your daily life it’s easy to maintain. It does not mean a rigid regime with no pleasure – there are few people who could sustain such an eating plan – but it does mean that effort has to be made to include enough vitamins, minerals, water, antioxidants, carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats into our diets on a day-to-day basis.
“This means a variety of food groups, including fruit, vegetables, grains, starches, dairy and protein foods, such as meat, fish and tofu,” says Derocha.
A way to remember how to properly balance the foods you eat is to follow the USDA’s guidelines, which suggest filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, just over one quarter with grains, a quarter with protein, such as tofu or fish, and then adding dairy on the side. As everyone’s needs differ, it’s a good idea to head to the Start Simple with MyPlate app (opens in new tab), which is designed for people to set daily meal and snack goals to help them achieve a healthier diet, and can make achieving a balanced diet attainable.
Do all meals need to be balanced?
No, according to Caroline Passerrello, a dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who says it is the pattern of eating over time that has the biggest impact on our health.
“Additionally, how we feel about ourselves and our food has an impact on our health. Focusing too much on nutrition or health can tip the balance of our thoughts, so I encourage my clients to ensure they are always getting pleasure from the variety of foods they choose to eat,” she says.
The best way to ensure your diet is balanced is to choose the most nutrient-dense foods when possible, making every bite count, because the benefits of making healthy choices add up over time.
How does a balanced diet affect our health?
The truth is that a balanced diet is essential for maintaining our health. A balanced diet gives your body the nutrients it needs to work effectively, helping us to live longer and healthier lives.
“Without balanced nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue and low performance,'' says Derocha. “Children who do not get enough healthy foods may face growth and developmental problems, poor academic performance and frequent infections.”
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (opens in new tab), four of the top 10 leading causes of death in the US are directly linked to diet: heart disease, cancer, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
How does it impact your health if you're missing nutrients?
If we’re feeling under the weather, it can often be exacerbated by a deficit of an essential nutrient in our diet. Malnutrition is not just about lack of food, but lack of nutrition and, as a study in Preventive Medicine Reports (opens in new tab) highlighted, over 12% of Americans are believed to suffer from lack of access to nutritious food.
“Malnutrition refers to getting too little or too much of certain nutrients, and can lead to serious health issues, including stunted growth, eye problems, diabetes and heart disease,’ says Derocha.
There are two types of malnutrition: undernutrition and overnutrition. Undernutrition results from not getting enough protein, calories or micronutrients and leads to low weight-height (wasting), height-for-age (stunting) and weight-for-age (underweight).
“People who are undernourished often have deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, especially iron, zinc, vitamin A and iodine,’ says Derocha. “This can cause weight loss, loss of fat and muscle mass, hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, a swollen stomach, dry hair and skin, delayed wound healing, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, depression and anxiety.”
Overnutrition is the over-consumption of certain nutrients such as protein, calories or fat, which usually results in being overweight or obese.
Why Good Nutrition is Important (opens in new tab), Center for Science in the Public Interest (2016)
The dual burden of malnutrition in the United States and the role of non-profit organizations (opens in new tab), Preventive Medicine Reports (2018)