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What does a “Balanced Diet” mean anymore?

Article by Cheryl Robinson, RD, CSR, LD

Owner and Founder at TurnWheel, LLC.

When you ask the average person, including many nutrition professionals, what a balanced diet is, the answer usually includes “getting enough fruits and vegetables”. But what does that really mean? In an age where there are so many fad diets telling you to “eat this, not that, or more of this and less of that”, it can be confusing. Some even suggest that some foods are clean vs. not clean.

Many of these diets have wildly varying amounts of macro nutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat), all promising the same results, weight loss and improved health. In recent times, the Keto diet has gained a lot of attention and many who follow it swear by their dramatic weight loss. This diet prescribes a range of 60-80% fat, 15-20% protein and 5-10% carbohydrate. By comparison, the typical diet recommended for an average healthy person ranges between 50-60% carbohydrate, 10-15% protein and around 25-30% fat.

Similar to the Keto diet, is the Paleo diet which suggests that humans were made to eat like pre-historic man dating 2.5 M to 10,000 years ago. This diet encourages lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Dairy, legumes and grains are limited with this eating lifestyle. Refined sugar, salt, potatoes and “highly processed foods” are also discouraged on this diet. Those following the Paleo way of living also include daily physical exercise.

Food components of the Paleo diet include a high amount of fat from meat and fish, although lower than fattier animal-based foods. Nuts and seeds, though rich in the healthier fats including Omega3’s, are high in calories. In addition to weight loss, Paleo diet supporters promise improved overall health by controlling blood sugar levels, blood pressure and lowering triglycerides. In theory, these changes would lower risk for chronic illness like heart disease and diabetes.

There are risks to these types of diets given it being high in cholesterol and low in (grainy) fiber. It can increase a person’s risk for numerous conditions including vitamin deficiencies, bone and joint inflammation, kidney stones, diabetes, and kidney disease. A high cholesterol, low fiber diet can also cause fatigue, headache, nausea, constipation, and low blood sugar.

In recent years, what is known as the “Plant-based diet” has become popular. This diet is not the same as vegan, vegetarian or even pescatarian. It includes 80-90% plant foods and can be used by people with chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease. This trendy diet is also being used by many pro-athletes who claim benefits including improved overall performance as well as reduced recovery time in-between training periods. The plant-based diet has the potential of reducing overall inflammation (leading to illnesses such as arthritis, heart disease, dementia, and cancer). It may also help people maintain a healthy weight by increasing overall energy and decreasing calories consumed.

The best diet? Year after year the Mediterranean diet is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the #1 diet overall. For 2022, it won best overall however the Flexitarian diet won for best in weight loss. The Mediterranean diet includes:

  • Lots of vegetables
  • Fruit as a dessert at each meal
  • Whole grains
  • Fatty fish twice a week
  • Some dairy foods like hard cheese or yogurt
  • Some nuts and seeds
  • Use good fats such as extra-virgin olive oil

Flexitarians eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins. They also allow dairy products and the occasional red meat and poultry.

So back to the original question, “What does a balanced diet mean?”. In short, it means different things to different people. The real answer is much more complicated. A truly balanced diet will do the following:

  • Provide sufficient nutrients to fuel your body for the energy it uses (Energy in = Energy out)
  • Supply the body with enough protein to help rebuild body tissues including bone. Include enough fat to help metabolize fat soluble vitamins, ensure hormonal balance and provide structural protection for the body.
  • Provide enough vitamins and minerals to equip your body systems with the ability to function at an optimal level:
  • Include enough fiber to protect and promote gut health
  • Include minerals that enable proper muscle (including heart) and brain function
  • Include enough vitamins and phytochemicals to help fight toxins that could cause cancer cells to grow
  • Include the occasional “pleasure food” that may be personal preference or part of a cultural tradition. (i.e. birthday cake)
  • Maintain healthy hydration for body cells to function and to help flush out toxins and digestive byproducts.

Starting a new diet can be fun and exciting. When there is a lot of hope in seeing the results you want, it can be devastating when you find out it is not working for you. Here are four rules of thumb before starting any diet, especially if you have an existing chronic condition:

  • If it sounds too good to be true it probably is
  • Speak with a dietitian (RD) before starting a special diet
  • Any change in eating habits generally should be gradual (unless there is an allergy)
  • Do what works for you and gives you the results you want

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