The terms “balanced eating” or “balanced meal” have been around the block a few times, and yet, we are still questioning what “balance” is. I attribute this to the prevalence of fad diets, anecdotal evidence to support unbalanced meals and an overall confusion surrounding nutrition.
This post is an overview of what a balanced meal is, why it is hard to achieve and a few tips to keep in mind for your next meals.
Understanding What a Balanced Meal Is
A balanced meal isn’t about representing all food groups in a single meal. It would be quite a feast with everything included all of the time and unfortunately, dietary restrictions, like being lactose intolerant, don’t fit into the equation.
Instead of framing a balanced meal as a meal with all food groups, think of it as a meal where all of the nutrients you need are present. And what nutrients are required for a balanced meal?
Sometimes, a meal does not have a balanced ratio of these nutrients or it may even exclude one group entirely. Before we get alarmed, it’s helpful to remember that your nutritional intake happens over an entire day; therefore, one meal can be more protein or carb-focused and another can be the opposite.
I often don’t have enough carbs in my breakfast, but I like to snack on fruit mid-morning. If I were to eat my breakfast and snack together, I could call it a balanced meal, so just because I’ve put some time between these two meals doesn’t mean I haven’t had a balanced intake. If you look at everything you ate in the day and the nutrients that were present, you are still eating in a balanced way if your carbs, proteins and fats were present in the appropriate quantities throughout the day.
Why Do I Need All Three Nutrients in My Meals?
No matter what fad diets say about how you can cut out one of these groups, the body wants what it needs and it needs all three of these nutrients.
Carbs are what give us energy, but, as we’ve heard time and time again, not all carbs are created equal. I usually get my carbs from vegetables like zucchini, squash, potatoes, spinach (even though its a low carb vegetable) black beans and also fruits like apples and bananas. My deep love of Mexican food also means tortillas frequent my diet, and I adore bagels and pasta, an adoration I indulge about once a week.
Protein supports muscle development. Who doesn’t love being able to lift things? I use chicken, greek yogurt, and eggs most often as my protein source. Chicken and eggs have never been hard to find no matter what country I’ve been in; greek yogurt is usually easy to find if I’m in a big city. I like meat as a protein source, but I am not good at cooking it except for chicken, so I just opt for choices I know I will enjoy eating.
Fats are not the enemy; they help the body absorb vitamins and give us fatty acids that we cannot produce ourselves, but need to functions. Peanut butter, avocados (when they are in season), hard cheeses, nuts and the skin from chicken is where I usually get my fat from.
Why Balanced Eating can be Difficult
Creating a balanced meal can be difficult because of what we associate with the terms “carbs” “protein” and “fat”. Protein is hailed as the gold mine of nutrition while carbs and fats are or have been subjected to smear campaigns.
There is a tendency to gloss over details as well when looking at diets like keto or low-carb diets. There is research to back up claims that these diets boost energy and do wonders for fat loss, but I think that when we talk about these diets, particularly keto, we gloss over the fact that there are still carbs in this diet because vegetables have carbs.
Now other diets, like the carnivore diet, are also becoming prevalent with anecdotal evidence that supports unbalanced eating. Whenever I hear people say, “Well it worked for our ancestors, so we should keep eating like this.” I also think about how people used to die around the age of 30. I’m not about that life, thank you. Carnivore diets completely eliminate carbs, and while the body can adapt as seen in the keto diet, it takes a lot of healthy foods out of your diet. My question for people following this diet is where do they get their vitamins and fiber from? There are claims that this diet is healthy, but I don’t think there is enough research on the effects of this diet (long term) to really make that claim.
I knew someone who followed the carnivore diet and I recall the whole fiber thing being a bit of an issue. Their remedy was to fast for 72 hours straight, but I’m sure their digestive issues could have been solved with a bit of broccoli. In my humble and unprofessional opinion, their diet was “extreme” and when I think of extreme diets, I think of disordered eating rather than a healthy, balanced diet.
The quality of information regarding nutrition also contributes to the confusion surrounding balanced diets and balanced eating.The quality is certainly improving, but in the past, a lot of diet-related information was either oversimplified or too technical. Simplifying information is good for getting a basic understanding of a concept; however, application of that knowledge can be a challenge. And if a dictionary is needed to decipher a technical text, I generally don’t make it past the first line and I imagine many others don’t either.
The “trusted” sources of information add to this overall confusion. People consult the internet or their friends for advice rather than a dietitian and this is a phenomenon I don’t quite understand. When your car is broken, you call a mechanic. But when we’re struggling with our diet, we consult a friend or the internet?
I think this trend has a lot to do with exposure. The average person doesn’t really have contact with a dietitian unless they are having a medical problem.
Tips for Balancing a Meal
Often we aren’t getting the balance of nutrients we need in a day, so you might be wondering how to achieve more balance in your meals.
- Identify 4-5 sources of each nutrient and ask yourself if you will actually eat them. If you don’t like nuts, peanut butter or avocado, you aren’t going to eat them just to get your fat intake.
It helps to keep season in mind when creating this list because certain foods, like avocados, are seasonal. If avocados were the only source of fat on your list, you’ll be right back where you started once avocado season is over.
2. Find sources that are easily accessible.No matter how good of a nutrient source a food is, it isn’t going to make a difference if you can’t access it. Flax seed is one ingredient I see promoted that I know I need to go to the import store to get. I fortunately live near the import stores now, but there was a time where the thought of getting on the metro for an hour just to go get some flax seeds was ridiculous and I chose to do without. From your list of nutrient sources, figure out which ones you will be able to access consistently.
3. Consider small ways to add to your current meals. Ingredients like rice, beans, quinoa, eggs, and cheese are versatile making them good options to throw into some of your current meals for more balance.
Creating a balanced meal can be simple. By including a carb, protein, and fat into your meal, you’ve got balance. More important than balancing every single dish you eat is ensuring you’ve achieved a balance by the end of the day. Our bodies are resilient and adapt, so it is possible to be eating in unbalanced ways without noticing drastic changes, but we shouldn’t strive for that. Weeding through all of the information and misinformation surrounding nutrition can be a daunting task; however, dietitians are great resources and they are more accessible than you think. Working with a dietitian can be especially helpful if you’re about to make major dietary changes.