The Importance of Eating a Balanced Diet
Food is the ultimate human unifier. No matter what the culture, geography, or personal preference, we all need food to survive. With so much diversity in foods and diets around the world, what is it that all people need in order to stay healthy and have a balanced diet? In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of a balanced diet by looking at what foods we should all be eating in our meals.
Surviving vs. Thriving Through Food
There is a difference between eating to survive and eating to thrive. To survive, we can eat almost anything in the portions and frequency we’d like. For example, humans can live for a long time eating a diet of sodas and fast food for all meals every meal. We will survive, but our overall health will surely not be in the best shape. Over time, our fast food diet will begin to show in our health: faster aging, high cholesterol and triglycerides, obesity, and more. Our health would unlikely to thrive.
To thrive, we need to look beyond fulfilling hunger. We not only need food, but we also need to have a diet that is diverse and balanced. When we mention the word “diet,” most people often think of a restrictive meal plan that makes you eat a tasteless meal with egg whites, boiled chicken and lettuce without much else. In reality, the word “diet” simply refers to an eating pattern.
In addition to giving us pleasure, cultural identity, and reasons to get together with friends, food, of course, also gives us essential nutrients our body needs to maintain basic functions. Depending on our diet, the food we eat can provide us with enough of all the nutrients we need (a “healthy” diet), or not (think fast food all day every day – an “unhealthy” diet).
So, after all of this, what exactly makes up a balanced diet? Canada’s Food Guide makes it simple for us by providing us a guide of four key guidelines we should follow when building our meals.1
1. Have Plenty of Vegetables and Fruits
Fruits and vegetables are incredibly important for any balanced diet. They provide us with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that are essential for all of our bodily functions – from growth and digestion to repairs after an injury or an illness (and thousands more!).
The benefits of including fruits and vegetables in all of your meals reach far and wide. According to research, fruit and vegetable consumption helps to protect us from heart disease, stroke, cataract, lung disease, diverticulosis, and hypertension, among others.2 The study showed that some of the fruits and vegetables with most benefits include dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, and deep orange-yellow fruits and vegetables.
Of course, the benefits aren’t limited only to the above-mentioned fruits and vegetables. Other studies have highlighted to benefits of several other fruits and vegetables, including berries, onions, and apples, to name just a few.3
What is it in fruits and vegetables that make them so healthy for us? It seems that there isn’t only one component responsible for the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. In fact, they contain so many beneficial components that they add up and boost each others’ potential.4
This just goes to show that it is important to include plenty of fruits and vegetables in every meal of the day. As a general guide, about half of your plate should be full of fruits or vegetables at each meal.
2. Eat Protein Foods
Protein foods can be plant-based or animal-based. Animal-based proteins include beef, fish and shellfish, chicken, pork, milk and dairy, and wild game, among others. Plant-based protein foods include legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Foods high in protein are essential for building and maintaining muscle, making hormones and other chemical messengers, and for transporting materials throughout the body.
Animal proteins are what are referred to as “complete” proteins. They contain all of the amino acids (protein building blocks) our bodies cannot make. Some animal proteins, however, are high in saturated fats, like beef and whole dairy. Most people should aim to choose lower fat protein options, or opt for plant-based protein.5
Most plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids, but they can be combined with other plant foods to make complete proteins. Some examples of the vegetable protein combinations include rice and beans or corn and beans, peanut butter and whole grain, and tofu and quinoa, among others.
3. Choose Whole Grain Foods
Whole grain foods like whole grain pastas and bread, oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa are much better choices than refined grains like white breads, muffins, crackers, and white pasta. There are two main reasons for choosing whole grains over refined grains.6
First, whole grains tend to be lower in sodium, added sugars and saturated fats. Second, whole grain foods are higher in fibre than refined grains. Eating foods high in fiber is associated with favorable measures of weight, BMI, waist circumference, cholesterol and glucose, among others. All of these elements help to lower the risk of developing chronic diseases.
4. Make Water your Drink of Choice
One of the culprits of many of the health issues that can arise with an unbalanced diet is sugary drinks. According to research, consuming sugar-sweetened beverages increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.7
Water, on the other hand, contains no calories and it keeps you hydrated. Our bodies lose water all day, and drinking beverages other than water can cause several health conditions.
Healthy meals are the key to a healthy diet, and a healthy diet is essential for your overall health. A healthy meal plate should contain:
- Half a plate of fruits and vegetables
- One-quarter of a plate of protein foods
- One-quarter of a plate of whole grains
- Water to drink
Ensuring that you have a healthy diet will help to prevent a range of health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more. If you are afraid that you aren’t getting your nutrients from the diet, or if you want a boost in, you can seek support from supplements.
Food guide snapshot. (2019, June 18). Retrieved from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/food-guide-snapshot/
Duyn, M. A., & Pivonka, E. (2000). Overview of the Health Benefits of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption for the Dietetics Professional.Journal of the American Dietetic Association,100(12), 1511-1521. doi:10.1016/s0002-8223(00)00420-x
Seeram, N. P. (2010). Recent Trends and Advances in Berry Health Benefits Research†. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,58(7), 3869-3870. doi:10.1021/jf902806j
Liu, R. H. (2003). Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,78(3). doi:10.1093/ajcn/78.3.517s
Healthy eating recommendations. (2019, April 23). Retrieved from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/make-it-a-habit-to-eat-vegetables-fruit-whole-grains-and-protein-foods/eat-protein-foods/
Newby, P., Maras, J., Bakun, P., Muller, D., Ferrucci, L., & Tucker, K. L. (2007). Intake of whole grains, refined grains, and cereal fiber measured with 7-d diet records and associations with risk factors for chronic disease. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,86(6), 1745-1753. doi:10.1093/ajcn/86.6.1745
Malik, V. S., Popkin, B. M., Bray, G. A., Després, J., & Hu, F. B. (2010). Sugar-Sweetened Beverages, Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and Cardiovascular Disease Risk. Circulation,121(11), 1356-1364. doi:10.1161/circulationaha.109.876185