Sometimes even just hearing the phrase ‘a balanced diet’ can make some people reach for a chocolate bar in an attempt to cheer themselves up. That’s because they’ve presumed ‘balanced’ means boring i.e. unwavering, same-y and no option for variety at any point.
Well, that’s where they couldn’t be more wrong.
A balanced diet involves loads of different foods, flavours and can definitely be fun. Just read on and you’ll see what I mean.
First though, what do we mean by ‘a balanced diet’?
In its simplest form it’s making sure we eat something from all the major food groups every day, and in the recommended quantities. This way our body gets all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy such as complex carbohydrates, proteins, essential fats, vitamins and minerals.
We don’t have to get all scientific and start measuring quantities out. The general rule of thumb is a fist sized portion of starchy carbohydrates at main meals such as sweet potato or brown rice alongside a palm sized portion of protein (lean meat, pulses) with vegetables as the main event on the plate. Seasonal, lower sugar fruit is an ideal way to consume something sweet that’s still nutritious and dairy or dairy alternatives help make up a balanced, accessible approach.
Beneficial fats are another important aspect of a balanced diet and a drizzle of oil, a spread of butter or some cheese shouldn’t be overlooked. Sugar or refined carbohydrates are generally where things can go awry, remember, just a little, not a lot.
Common mistakes attempting a balanced diet
So, how does this all look when you come to sit down to a meal? Well, if you’re a big pasta fan then it can be tempting to fill your bowl up with pasta and just include a little chicken or salmon with a couple of cucumber slices or a few baby spinach leaves on the side. But that’s not how it works. Ideally you’d want the biggest food portion on the plate to be vegetables with a reasonably large piece of protein and just a handful of pasta.
The ideal example of a balanced diet that you’ve no doubt sampled during a sunny holiday is the Mediterranean diet, long understood as offering protective health benefits - adding life to years not just years to life.
It’s an approach that focuses primarily on plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and some nuts, with fish or lean meats a smaller but important part of mealtimes. The Mediterranean diet also replaces butter or other spreadable fats with olive oil and uses a great deal of fresh herbs and spices rather than depending overly on salt.
Key rules to ensure your diet is always balanced
- Always choose something from main food groups every day
- Try and eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables everyday, vegetables being the most important
- Switch from juice to sparkling or still water
- Eat fish twice a week, ideally oily fish, or ensure intake of raw nuts and seeds regularly
- Snack on healthy oatcakes and nutrient-rich toppings rather than sweets and confectionary, especially during mid-morning or mid-afternoon energy slumps. This virtuous cycle keeps you fuller for longer and less likely to crave quick-fix foods overall, a win-win.
- Try to plan ahead - cook once eat twice is a great budget friendly approach
The beauty about having a balanced diet is that you can mix and match as you go with whatever combinations you like provided that, at the end of the day, you’ve included foods from every group.
Tips on sticking to the rules
- We all need to rebel now and again and anyway it’s far easier to go for the 80/20 rule. This amounts to breaking the rules for around three meals every week.
- Choose foods you love, so, for example, don’t force yourself to eat avocado just because nutritionists like me rave about it! Find your own healthy favourites instead.
Treats you can have as part of a balanced diet
- That sweet craving can be satisfied by having a couple of squares of dark chocolate after dinner
- Fancy a glass of wine? Try to avoid the daily “wine o’clock” habit and instead make it more of an occasion. There are some beneficial properties in red wine in particular, but the key is not to overdo it.
- Enjoy desserts such as baked fruit with Greek yoghurt as a delicious way to get towards your five-a-day
- You don’t have to cut out coffee or tea but try to avoid adding sugar or syrups
A Perfectly Balanced Daily Meal Plan
On Wakening: Drink a glass of warm water with a squeeze of lemon to rehydrate, kick-start the digestion and add a dose of vitamin C prior to breakfast
Porridge oats (gluten free if you have digestive issues) with chopped banana and/or berries OR
- Poached eggs on rye toast
- Tea or coffee
- Two oatcakes spread with nut butter. This is an ideal combination of slow-release carbohydrates, beneficial fats and protein that will fuel both brain and body. Add thinly sliced chopped apple if you need an extra sweet tang.
Green salad with avocado, cold chicken or tuna OR
- Baked potato with beans or tuna
- Pot of natural yoghurt and handful of berries
- Celery/carrot sticks dipped in hummus or a mug of vegetable based soup
Poached salmon (hot or cold) with brown rice and a green salad containing baby spinach, tomatoes and olives and drizzled with a homemade dressing containing olive oil and balsamic vinegar OR
- Vegetable stir-fry with red peppers, tender stem broccoli, mushrooms, onions, mangetout and slices of chicken, turkey or halloumi cheese. Add in sesame oil and sesame seeds or toasted pine nuts at the end of cooking. Rice noodles are a nice way to add complex carbohydrates without consuming wheat.
- Two pieces of dark chocolate (70% plus cocoa solids) OR
- Baked berries and banana with desiccated coconut, served with Greek yoghurt and a drizzle of honey.
There, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
For more recipes and tips on how to stay naturally energised, please visit Nairn's.