One of the most important components of a healthy lifestyle and a lower risk for chronic illness is a balanced diet. A diet that provides all the nutrition for your body to grow, repair, and function optimally gives you the best shot at maintaining good health, managing your weight, and fostering longevity.
But what does a “balanced diet” look like? These days, the term is ubiquitous. Some people contend it’s all about calories, while really, it’s all about the foods from which you’re getting them. It’s essential to secure adequate nutrition. Balanced diets consist of an array of nutrient-dense foods that come from a variety of natural sources.
Many government agencies supply diet charts to give you a better idea of which foods you should be eating and how much of them to take in per day.
Is There a Standard Daily Caloric Intake for a Healthy, Balanced Diet?
A calorie is a measuring unit for the energy found in foods. Your body needs this energy to survive. If you want to eat a healthy, balanced diet, calories should be a concern, but they only represent a small part of the picture.
For example, you could be consuming the recommended daily caloric intake for the average adult—roughly 2,000 calories—but if all of them are coming from a burger and fries, you’re not eating a healthy, balanced diet. So, instead of focusing on calories, focus on the distribution of calories.
The bulk of your calories should come from an assortment of whole, unprocessed foods, including colorful vegetables, some fruit, lean proteins, healthy fats from nuts and oils, legumes, and whole grains.
Processed foods, sugary snacks, and calorie-laden liquids would be “special occasion” exceptions, not daily occurrences.
How many calories you need, or can handle without adverse effects, is dependent upon a number of factors. Your age, activity level, gender, metabolism, and genetics can all factor into the ideal number of calories you should be consuming.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a set of guidelines for daily caloric intake, but if you’re serious about losing weight or eating healthy, working with a nutritionist or professional will help you determine the optimal amount for your specific health and goals.
See some of the USDA-recommended calorie ranges below:
- Sedentary women (14 to 30 years old): 1,800 to 2,000
- Active women (14 to 30 years old): 2,400
- Sedentary men (14 to 30 years old): 2,000 to 2,600
- Active men (14 to 30 years old): 2,800 to 3,000
- Sedentary men and women over 30: 1,600 to 2,400
- Active men and women over 30: 2,000 to 3,000
The Benefits of Maintaining a Balanced Diet
A balanced diet offers the macronutrients (fats, protein, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, plant chemicals, and antioxidants) your body needs for optimal performance.
Adequate intake of these nutrients may also help reduce the risk of chronic illness and unhealthy weight gain. For example, instances of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer have all been linked to a poor diet.
If you eat a diet that’s full of calories from processed foods and sugary/fatty beverages, you’re getting virtually no nutrition and a ton of calories. These are typically referred to as “empty calories,” and they are very easy to overeat.
When eating a healthy and balanced diet, however, you’ll notice how much more you can eat before reaching a caloric surface. Healthy, nutrient-dense foods are often low in calories.
And the health benefits you get from this are massive. A balanced diet has the potential to:
- Reduce blood pressure
- Manage cholesterol
- Manage weight
- Balance blood sugar
- Reduce the risk of heart attack
- Lower the likelihood of type 2 diabetes
- Work to optimize organ functionality
- Improve metabolism
- Improve vision
- Improve bone health
- Build new and healthy tissue
- Protect against free radical damage
- Limit inflammation
- Optimize immune function and response
Balanced Diet Chart: A Guide to a Healthy Eating Plan?
The USDA food chart, formerly the food pyramid, can serve as a decent guideline for achieving a balanced diet. Charts contain all the food groups and their respective daily servings to guide your eating habits; however, individual adjustments can be made to achieve specific goals or to adapt to your specific requirements.
For example, not everyone will metabolize certain nutrients the same way. Some won’t need as much of one nutrient as others will.
Although it can be slightly controversial, the modern food chart is a good way to visualize a balanced diet. It is represented on a plate, but actually reflects the percentages of the types of food you should be eating over the course of a day:
- One-half of the plate should be a combination of leafy green and colorful vegetables and whole fruits. Veggies should make up the greater part of the total. Some experts even recommend a two-thirds portion.
- One-fourth can be an unprocessed protein like lean meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, egg whites.
- One-fourth can be whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, barley, whole-wheat breads and pastas, etc.).
There are valid arguments to be made that the share of protein should be a little bit larger and that whole grain consumption can be reduced, by one to two servings per week. But, once again, the food chart is a good guideline.
It’s also important to realize that the above representations carry through the entire day. You don’t need each group represented at snack time, for example. So, if you have an apple, factor it into the overall distribution.
Using healthy oils for veggies instead of sugary salad dressings and drinking plenty of water are also recommended. It’s also wise to consume about a handful of nuts (not candied) per day.
Steps to Follow a Balanced Diet
1. Enjoy Healthy Food Choices
This may be the hardest part. If you love the taste of sweetened food and calorically dense yet unhealthy items like French fries, chips, and ice cream, it can be hard to wean yourself off. But if you give yourself a week without them, it’s amazing how fast those cravings fade.
Pretty soon, an apple or strawberry, which may have been bland to you before, will be very sweet.
Texture and temperature are also cues we crave, so here are a couple of healthy hints:
- You can add some crunch to meals by adding nuts or whole grains, or by leaving veggies slightly undercooked.
- For cold, add some frozen berries to plain Greek yogurt and it’s like a parfait. Add some flavored protein powder to make it feel even more delightful!
Getting creative is the key to healthy eating.
2. Watch out for What You’re Buying
Reading labels is essential in eating a healthy, balanced diet. Spend most of your time shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where you’ll find all the nutritious whole foods you need. Pick a variety of colorful fresh fruits and veggies, fresh meat, eggs, and whole grains.
If recipes call for sauces or dressings, make your own to avoid the extra sugar. Red (or tomato-based) pasta sauces are generally healthier than creamy or cheesy sauces. Choose vinaigrettes over cream-based salad dressings.
You should only venture into the aisles for oils, oats, coffee, and whole grains—at least in most stores.
When buying something from a package, read the nutrition facts label. Look at the serving size to get an accurate depiction of the amount of nutrients offered per serving.
Also, pay more attention to the whole number as opposed to the daily percentages. And finally, read the ingredients: if sugar—or any word ending in “ose”—is first, you should probably leave it on the shelf.
3. Add Healthy Fats to Your Balanced Diet
All fats are not bad, so you don’t need to completely avoid them. Trans fats, found in deep-fried foods, baked foods, and many packaged snacks, are most harmful to your health.
The bulk of the fats you’ll want to consume are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3s) from items such as nuts; fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring; avocado; coconut; and olive oil. However, you’ll also get saturated fats that occur naturally in meats. These saturated fats should not be cause for concern if your diet is balanced and healthy overall.
Fats should represent about 20% to 30% of your total caloric intake. They are hugely important nutrients that help manage hormones while working to keep your skin, cells, and hair healthy. Do not be afraid of fat—it really is one of the healthiest and most important macronutrients.
4. Reduce Sodium
Too much sodium (salt) can vastly increase the risk of a heart attack and dramatically throw off your electrolyte balance. This can lead to poor function and limit the ability of neurotransmitters to communicate.
However, if you simply avoid buying frozen meals, eating processed foods, and eating at restaurants multiple times per week, you’ll get your sodium levels under control.
Salt is not inherently bad. The danger comes from how much of it you eat. In fact, you could add a generous amount of table salt to homemade recipes and meals and likely never come close to hitting an unhealthy range.
Don’t be afraid to sprinkle a little salt on foods prepared at home—your body needs it—just not if you’re also eating a lot of processed items.
You can also find alternative tastes by training your taste buds to enjoy salt-free herbs, spices, and seasonings like black pepper, garlic, onion, bell peppers, cilantro, and more.
5. Lower Sugars
As with sodium, added sugars from refined foods should also be limited to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. They are hiding in virtually every packaged food and can put you on the fast track to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to sugar, the best sources are natural, fiber-rich foods. Fruit is packed with fiber and healthy amounts of sugar—that’s why they are so sweet. The fiber slows the metabolism of sugar and protects you from the damage caused by heavy doses of sugar.
When you read a label, look for sugar and other “-oses” on the ingredient list.
6. Reduce Calories in Beverages
Calories can sneak up in sugary drinks, which may be the single biggest waste of calories that exist. The following drinks all lead to massive caloric bombs and zero nutrition:
- Sweetened iced tea
- Cola or any soda
- Specialty coffees with creams, syrups, and sugars
Instead, try taking your tea or coffee black (or with a limited, controlled portion of sweetener or milk) or drinking water instead of soda. A balanced diet is all about prioritizing sources of nutrition, and drinks are usually the easiest items to sacrifice.
7. Have a Plan
If you’re not currently eating a healthy and nutritious diet, you’re going to need a plan. Making this decision is about much more than food and will be a wholesale lifestyle change. So, start slowly.
Begin by adding a piece of fruit or extra serving of veggies to your day. Get a side salad instead of French fries, or drink one less cola per day. Your chances of success may be greatly improved if you have a plan that’s implemented gradually. Before long, the healthy decisions will be a reflex!
Healthy Shopping List to Follow for a Balanced Diet
There are some grocery items that are good to have on hand and can easily be whipped up into a delicious meal. These include products like:
- Egg whites
- Unsweetened Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Skinless chicken or turkey breast
- Unbattered fish/shellfish
- Lean ground beef
- Whole grain breads/pastas/tortillas
- Unsalted nuts
- Unsweetened nut butters
- Bell pepper
- Olive oil
- Oil-based dressings
- Soy sauce (reduced sodium)
- Spices and seasonings
And when it comes to fruit and vegetables, frozen or canned are suitable choices. As long as there are no added sugars or high levels of sodium, it will offer the same nutritional value as fresh options without the pressure of rapid spoilage.
A Weekly Meal Plan for a Healthy, Balanced Diet
There are a million and one ways to incorporate a healthy and balanced diet into your life. Here are a few sample meal ideas. Also, when it comes to dinners, don’t be afraid to make a little extra to enjoy as leftovers!
- 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
- Handful of nuts, crushed
- 80 grams of berries
- A package of unsweetened oatmeal (1/3 cup, uncooked)
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1 scoop whey or vegan protein powder
- Egg/egg white and vegetable omelet
- 1 cup garden salad with olive oil dressing
- Turkey sandwich with lettuce, mustard, and tomato on whole wheat
- 2 tablespoons of hummus, 1 1/2 ounces of low fat cheese, spinach,
carrot, and tomato on a whole-wheat wrap
- 1 medium apple
- 1 cup salad with oil-based dressing and some nuts
- 5 ounces grilled, honey mustard chicken
- 1 cup steamed green beans (drizzled with olive oil)
- 1 1/2 cup wild rice
- 3 ounces baked fish with lemon dill dressing
- 1 cup herbed pasta
- 1 cup steamed frozen vegetables (such as mixed vegetables)
Eating a Balanced Diet
If the item is available in the grocery store or local farmers market, doesn’t have a long ingredients list, and came from the earth or an animal, it has a place in a healthy, balanced diet.
Focus on colorful, plant-based products and lean sources of animal protein most of the time, while allowing a little room for indulgence every once in a while. Even pizza, ice cream, and fries have their place. Learn to make the healthier choices regularly, then re-integrate the treats you crave on special occasions.
- Top 10 Protein-Rich Vegetables to Include in Your Diet
- Plant-Based Diet Benefits: 7 Reasons This Diet Is Good for You
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