The Truth about Balanced Meals, what they are (and aren’t)

Ask anyone what “balanced meals” are, and you’ll get different answers. I get why nutrition is confusing.

So, let’s go over what balanced meal are (and aren’t), why it’s hard to do (but I believe in you), and a few tips to help you balance your meals (no matter what you eat).

What a Balanced Meal Isn’t

A balanced meal does not mean:

  • All food groups in a single meal
  • Low glycemic index carbs
  • strict macro ratios like 30/30/40 (technically it’s balanced, but it’s not flexible)

Balanced meals mean having a carb, a protein and a fat. Technically that’s it, but it’s important to get quality carbs, proteins and fats into your diet…and have everything else in moderation.

Quality Macronutrients (and where to get them)

People think of foods as “good vs bad”. I like to think of them as “nutrient-dense vs energy dense”…which isn’t always an easy distinction.

Nutrient-Dense Foods

These foods have a lot of nutrients for the calories you’re eating. Think of a banana.

Image by krakenimages.com on Freepik

A medium banana has about:

  • Calories: 110
  • Fat: 0g
  • Protein: 1g
  • Carbs: 28 g carbs
  • Sugar: 15g sugar
  • Fiber: 3g fiber
  • Potassium: 450 mg potassium

That’s a good amount of nutrient for a small amount of calories.

Calorie-Dense Foods

These foods are the opposite. You get more calories for the nutrition. Think banana bread ( 3.5oz or 100g):

banana bread slices
  • Calories: 421
  • Fat: 15.8 grams
  • Carbs: 68.4 grams
  • Protein: 5.3 grams
  • Fiber: 1.8 grams
  • Sugar: 42.1 grams
  • Sodium: 298 mg

An easy way to know if something is nutrient-dense or calorie dense is to pick a nutrient. Let’s say fiber. Then pick a goal, 5g of fiber.

Now, how many bananas would you need to eat to get 5 grams of fiber? 2 bananas and that’s 220 calories.

How much banana bread do you need to eat to get 5 grams of fiber? You’d need three 3.5oz servings and that’s 1263 calories (plus 42.1 grams of sugar, and 298 mg of salt that bananas don’t have).

So if you need more fiber in your diet, you’d choose a banana over banana bread because a banana is nutrient-dense.

Nutrient-Dense Carbs (aka Quality Carbs)

The idea that carbs are bad needs to go because carbs give us energy. In fact, your body has metabolic processes to make glucose if you’re not eating enough carbs. Because our body loves to feed off glucose. And your body only makes red blood cells with glucose.

If that’s not proof enough that carbs are your friend, I don’t know what is…

But it’s true that all carbs are equal. You’ll get way more nutrition from an apple than you will a slice of apple pie.

Quality Carb Sources

  • Pasta, rice, oats, other grains
  • whole wheat bread
  • fruits
  • vegetables

Nutrient-Dense Protein

We need protein in our diet for muscle and to make hormones and proteins our body needs to function. And there are 3 types of protein: lean protein, medium-fat protein, and high-fat protein.

You’ll get roughly the same amount of protein in a serving of any type of protein. But the amount of fat and calories (because fat has more calories per gram) will be different.

One ounce of chicken breast has 7 grams of protein, about 2 grams of fat and 45 calories. 1 ounce of sausage also has 7 grams of protein, but 8 grams of fat and it’s 100 calories.

That’s a big reason why people focus on lean protein when they try to cut calories.

Quality Lean Protein Sources

  • Chicken/turkey without the skin
  • Eggs
  • Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa

Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs are complete proteins. And so are tofu and quinoa. Other plant-based proteins are also quality proteins, but you have to pair them.

Complimentary Proteins

The body can make some amino acids…

but there are 9 essential amino acids that we must get from our diet. Not every protein source has all 9 though.

A complete protein means the protein source has all the essential amino acids you need.

Complimentary proteins:
Grains (rice, pasta)
Legumes (beans, lentils)
Nuts (almonds, peanuts)
Seeds (sunflower seeds) 
Pair any 2 to have complimentary proteins.

Nutrient-Dense Fat

Nutrient dense fats are our “healthy fats” (aka unsaturated fats). And our “fats to limit” are saturated fats and trans-fats.

Right now, the evidence says diets higher in monounsaturated fats may promote body weight and body fat loss and improve insulin sensitivity when eaten in a moderate to high carb diet.

The Deal with Saturated Fats

The evidence also says that saturated fats are linked to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased heart disease risk. That’s why heart healthy eating patterns like the Mediterranean and DASH diet promote mono and polyunsaturated fats.

Right now, the American Heart Association recommends to limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your total daily calories.

But we do need some saturated fat in our diet for cholesterol and hormone production. And yes, some researchers are looking at saturated fats recommendations again like Dietary Saturated Fats and Health: Are the U.S. Guidelines Evidence-Based?. This 2021 article questions the evidence behind the recommendation to limit saturated fats to 10% of total daily calories or replace them with polyunsaturated fats. There’s not enough evidence to support changing the recommendation yet though.

This is usually where people say things like “see, no one can make up their mind, how are we supposed to know what’s healthy?”

But this is how science works. You keep testing and challenging ideas to prove they’re right (or wrong).

Another key point from this article is diet quality affects how saturated fats are metabolized. And there is definitely enough evidence that shows processed foods (which tend to be high in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugar, and sodium) do not support health.

Diet quality is key. I’m less concerned about the saturated fats I get from a nutrient-dense source like cheese or yogurt than the saturated fats I get from a frozen meal packed with sodium.

Quality Fat Sources

  • Olive oil
  • Unsalted nuts like walnuts and almonds
  • Seeds like chia, pumpkin, and sunflower
  • Whole or reduced-fat dairy
  • Fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon

Alcohol and Balanced Eating

Alcohol is one of those “best in moderation” drinks because there is no nutrition in alcohol. It’s 100% calories and your body tries to get it out of your system as soon as possible.

Enzymes break down alcohol into acetaldehyde (which increases cancer risk) and then into acetate and finally into water and carbon dioxide so your body can get it out of the body.

Plus higher alcohol intake is associated with higher cancer risk. According to the American Cancer Society, its the amount of alcohol rather than the type that seems to increases risk.

Which brings us back to the “in moderation” mantra.

Yes, Balanced Eating can be Hard

Planning and making balanced meals is simple. But it takes practice and planning. Think of balanced eating as a skill. You need to practice it to get good at it. But that’s the part people don’t like– the struggle when you practice.

That’s why the hardest part about balanced eating is the consistency.

5 Tips for Balancing a Meal (without the stress)

#1: Keep 3-5 staples for each macronutrient at home

It’s a lot easier to balance a meal when you have the ingredients you need. I always have pasta, nuts, rice, and frozen fruit and veg because they’re just so easy to keep.

#2: Have a few “go-to” balanced meal ideas you can make (without thinking)

“What am I going to make?”

I hate answering that question. So I have a few go to meals I can always throw together. For breakfast, it’s oats with milk, frozen fruit and walnuts.

For lunch and dinner, I throw rice, veg, a protein and a sauce into my rice cooker and let it work it’s magic. And speaking of a rice cooker…

#3: Use tools that make your life easier

Don’t spend hundreds on stuff that will sit in the corner of your kitchen and collect dust.

But if something will make your life easier and help bring balance to your meals, why not get it? I’m talking rice cookers, veggie choppers, meal prep containers you can freeze. Do what you gotta do.

#4: Focus on Diet Quality

Technically pizza is balanced. The crust/tomato sauce provides your carbs. The cheese and any meat toppings your fat and protein. But it’s not a nutrient dense food.

So this is where we want to focus on the quality of our diet. meaning focus on unprocessed and nutrient-dense foods. That’s hard to do when you’re working 80 hours a week, juggling a family or living on the go though. I know.

Do what you can to get quality carbs (high in fiber, low in added sugar), lean proteins and unsaturated fats into a meal.

And if you’re eating at a restaurant, look for meals with vegetables, fruits, and grains, a lean protein and a nutrient-dense fat. Swap fries for steamed or grilled vegetables. Limit sauces and dressings (which can have a lot of added sugar or sodium).

Try the hot/cold food bars in grocery stores instead of a fast food place.

Small changes add up.

#5: Think big picture

The real goal is to have a balanced eating pattern that is sustainable. There will be cake at birthdays. Pumpkin spiced lattes in the fall. Beer at that concert. If you’re having these things in moderation, it’s fine. Food choices shouldn’t cause stress.

Takeaway

Creating a balanced meal can be simple. It’s having a carb, a protein and a fat in your meal. But it takes practice to do well and consistently because it is a skill. Focus on diet quality with nutrient dense macronutrients. When you’re eating out, look at ways to build a more nutrient-dense balanced meal. And think about your overall eating pattern instead of just individual meals. You’ve got this, I believe in you.

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