There is the old joke that a balanced diet is a glass of wine in one hand and a slice of cake in the other… This perfectly reflects how many of us think about a “balanced” diet, if we think about it at all. But a balanced diet isn’t one where we eat half junk and half “good” food. It really means (if you are a dietitian, at least) that you are eating enough of all the different food groups to give your body the wide range of nutrients you need. Overeating on one food or food group often means eating less of another and this can lead to problems maximising your nutrition.
What are the pitfalls?
Fads that call for banning or amplifying one or more food groups can lead you into problems. Cutting carbs or focusing far too much on protein can lead to imbalance. What if you cut out dairy? Where do you go for calcium? What about fruit if sugar is banned? It’s easy to see that paying attention to one aspect of your diet and forgetting about the rest isn’t helpful. Your body needs a lot of different nutrients and there is no one food or food group that is going to supply them.
So what do we need for a truly balanced diet?
A little bit of everything is the place to start. Avoid banning any food groups unless you have an allergy. This can be made complicated but a very simple place to start is how you balance your plate at meals. Have a look at the plate below - your lunch and dinner should be one quarter protein (fish, meat, chicken, beans, lentils), one quarter carbs (preferable high fibre or wholegrain) and one-half vegetables or salad. Add a glass of milk (or calcium fortified soya milk) or a yoghurt for calcium and you have one very balanced meal.
Don’t ban anything
If you have an allergy to dairy or prefer a plant-based diet – no problem. But do make sure that you are catching up on calcium somewhere else – and green vegetables don’t count for calcium (you would have to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get your calcium. Actually true). You also don’t need to ban sugar. Even the strictest sugar guidelines allow you 7 teaspoons per day of added sugar. And the sugar in fruit, milk and plain yoghurt doesn’t count. Banning carbs can also leave your muscles crying out for fuel when you are training: just watch portion sizes and go for the high fibre options.
When you have all of that right, then you have space to “balance” your diet with a little treat.
Four Key Messages
- There is no need to cut any food group for health (unless you have an allergy). Balance is key. It is best if you get protein, carbs and vegetables at lunch and dinner: just watch portion sizes.
- We need protein at lunch and dinner as part of a balanced diet. Fish is an excellent source of protein along with beans, chicken, lentils and meat.
- Watch your calcium. Green vegetables are not a good source. If you do cut dairy, make sure you are going for calcium-fortified plant-based milks instead. Tinned sardines and salmon are also good sources of calcium.
- Learn to balance your plate – it should be one quarter protein, one quarter carbs and half vegetables.
Consultant Nutritionist - MSc., BSc., MINDI
Sarah has a degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from Trinity College and a Masters in European Food Regulation.
She runs a food and nutrition consultancy giving one-to-one advice on nutrition and diet as well as working with some of Ireland's leading food companies.