Scroll through social media, download any one of the hundreds of workout apps, or join a quick conversation about health and wellness, and you’re most likely to hear someone say something along the lines of “just eat a balanced meal.”
Okay … easy enough! But what does that really mean?
What is a Balanced Meal?
There are many “diet-culture” explanations for the term “balanced meal”, but what it essentially means is providing your body with the nutrients it needs without having too much or too little of any one nutrient. If you want to get the nutrients you need, you should get most of your calories from:
- fresh fruits
- fresh vegetables
- whole grains
What are nutrients?
Nutrients technically mean substances found in food that are required for a biological activity that is essential for survival. In other words, our bodies NEED nutrients to survive.
There are 6 nutrients that your body needs on a regular basis.
Macronutrients, which are Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fat, are the nutrients that are needed in larger amounts and provide calories or energy. On the other hand,
Micronutrients, which are Water, Minerals, and Vitamins, are the nutrients that do not provide calories or energy and are needed in smaller amounts. Regardless of the actual dose needed, all of them are absolutely necessary for the body to function!
Where can I find these nutrients?
Nutrients are found in food (I know, I know … you might be thinking OBVIOUSLY!); but stay with me here …
Different foods have different levels of these particular nutrients, so in order to be able to eat a balanced meal, you need to have an idea of where you can find each of the nutrients.
Because carbohydrates come in many different types, they’re found in so many of the foods that we eat on a daily basis. These include grains (rice, oats, bread, pasta, etc.), fruits, dairy, starchy veggies (potatoes, corn, etc.), and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas). Sucrose AKA sugar is also a carb and is found in juices and sweets.
This nutrient is mainly found in animal products such as dairy, eggs, and meats (chicken, fish, beef, pork, etc.). However, for those who want to stick to a plant-based diet, protein can be found in legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas) as well as in nuts, nut butter, and seeds (peanut butter, walnuts, chia seeds, etc.).
This nutrient that many try to stay away from is actually 100% essential for a healthy body. Specifically, Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made by the body and must be eaten in our food. Sources of Omega-6 include sunflower and corn oil, and most nuts and seeds while sources of Omega-3 include fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines in addition to olive and canola oil. Fat is also included in foods that we eat such as meat, chicken, eggs, dairy, pre-packaged snacks, and a balanced meal.
Vitamins and Minerals
These nutrients are found in all the different foods we eat. Some common examples are Vitamin E in nuts, seeds, and oils, Vitamin C in citrus fruits and peppers, Vitamin D in fortified cereals and liver, Iron in meats and dark green leafy vegetables, Iodine in seafood and iodized salt, and Calcium in dairy products and almonds.
Many foods are a great source of water! These include all kinds of soups in addition to juicy fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, and apples.
How much of each of the nutrients should I eat?
There are many recommendations out there, but an easy guide to follow is the MyPlate. Another guideline that can be helpful to read through when you have the time is The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is packed full of even more info about nutrition!
Listen to your body
Our bodies are very wise! Have you ever felt that you were full from the balanced meal but wanted some more of the side salad? Listening to your body in terms of hunger, fullness, and satisfaction may be a helpful tool for some to help figure out how much they should be eating of certain food groups. (This may not work for those who have been chronically dieting and are not in tune with their body cues.)
Try to have your meals be as varied as possible. Mix up colors and textures and flavors. Did you skip out on the protein at breakfast? Think about how you can incorporate more of it into your next balanced meal.
The bottom line is, that there is no “perfect” way to eat.
Strive to get a little bit of everything into your diet while focusing on how your body feels in terms of hunger and fullness. Keep in mind, that one balanced meal and even one day of unbalanced eating will not make or break your health and fitness goals, so there’s no need to beat yourself up about it.
Let’s try balancing our physical health and mental health!
Licensed Dietitian and Eating Disorders Specialist