What is a balanced diet?

A Balance Box balanced diet including Roasted Plum Bircher, Chickpea Chilli & Feta Salad and Butternut & Edamame Bean RisottoWe all know that balance is key to leading a healthy, happy life. If you’ve had an intense week at work, for example, it would make sense to balance this with a restful weekend. Are you feeling run ragged by those around you? Then it’s a good idea to carve out some ‘me’ time. But in terms of nutrition, what exactly does ‘balance’ mean? What is a balanced diet and why it’s so crucial for maintaining your weight, health and wellbeing?

Why do we need a balanced diet?

The digestive systems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were not designed to depend on just a few types of food, because no single food contained all the essential nutrients they needed to stay healthy. Instead, our forebearers adapted to the environment they lived in and survived on a wide range of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. And, on a good day, a bit of meat or fish.

But what does the food source of our ancestors have to do with our modern, balanced diet? The answer is that human bodies have evolved over millions of years to eat a variety of whole foods (‘whole foods’ are unprocessed, unrefined plant foods that haven’t been interfered with) to unlock the rich source of vitamins and minerals they contain. In evolutionary terms, the 12,000 or so years that separate us from hunter-gatherers is merely a blink of an eye. Biologically, we are the same.

The trouble with a Western diet, however, is that it’s heavy with convenient, processed, fat and sugar-laden foods. Foods that would be unrecognisable to our ancestors. And yet, many of us can’t get enough of them.

Why would we bother to eat ten different types of fruit and vegetable a day, when we can feel full and satisfied with a big bowl of pasta? This dish might provide us with an energy surplus but it’s not nutritionally balanced. It’s no surprise, therefore, that a large chunk of the population is overweight or obese, and consequently at an increased risk of a range of associated health conditions such as type 2 diabetes.

When considering how you can improve your diet, it really helps to remember that our bodies crave the vitamins and minerals found in whole foods because, quite simply, they are the foods that we are designed to eat. If you want to lose or maintain weight, feel better, be happier, healthier and have more energy, then the easiest way to do this is a eat a balanced diet full of fresh whole foods.

A balanced diet – what you need to know

Carbohydrates, fats and proteins: these food groups, or macronutrients, are the holy trinity of a healthy diet, and the human body needs a certain amount of them in order to survive. Macronutrients can be further subdivided into micronutrients which relates to the vitamins and minerals contained within these foods.

To embrace a balanced diet, it’s important to make sure you’re eating a wide variety of foods that cover all the macro and micronutrients your body needs. Let’s go into more detail.

Carbs are not the enemy

Carbs get a bad rep in some weight-loss circles. But carbohydrates are essential for our bodies to function well. At Balance Box, we don’t neglect any food group because we believe that a diet consisting of healthy fats, lean proteins and complex carbohydrates is the key to a balanced diet which can help with long-term weight-loss and weight management.

Carbohydrates are organic compounds in plants that are broken down when digested and converted into glucose which the body uses for energy. However, not all carbohydrates are nutritionally equal.

Simple carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and white sugar, are converted into glucose and released into the bloodstream quickly – too quickly. This causes a problem as our bodies are unable to accurately control the flow of sugar in our blood. A flood of sugar causes a flood of insulin, which then leads to a sugar-crash and tiredness. What do we do when we’re tired? We reach for foods that are high in sugar so we can get an instant hit of energy and so we become trapped in a vicious cycle of craving, sugar-highs, sugar-lows and tiredness. This will ultimately lead to weight gain and potentially type 2 diabetes. In short, simple carbohydrates are not your friend.

Complex carbohydrates, however, release their energy slowly which maintains energy levels, keeps you feeling fuller for longer and reduces the desire for snacking. Complex carbohydrates are found in wholegrains, vegetables and legumes, so consider swapping simple carbohydrates for complex ones such as white rice for quinoa, white potatoes for sweet potatoes and white pasta for wholegrain pasta.

Protein

Protein is crucial for a healthy body. Consisting of essential amino acids that we cannot produce ourselves, it helps repair and build the body’s tissues, facilitates metabolic functions (such as digestion and blood clotting) and bolsters the immune system. Pretty powerful stuff. Incorporate lean protein into your diet such as poultry, venison, fish, nuts, pulses and tofu and enjoy feeling stronger, fuller for longer and fizzing with more energy.

Fats

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, (some) fats are fabulous. As with carbohydrates, fats fall into two categories – good and bad. Good fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats which contain Omega-6 and Omega-3. These fats can help lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. Good sources include olive oil, organic eggs, avocados, nuts, good quality meat, oily fish, soya beans and seeds. Aim to eat a thumb-sized portion of essential fats each day. As for “bad” fats, definitely try cut back on saturated and trans fats which include full-fat dairy products, cakes, cookies, margarine, fast-food and milk-chocolates.

Eat the rainbow

Another clever trick to ensure you’re eating a balanced diet, is to think about fruit and vegetables in terms of their colour. How much variety is there in your fruit and veg drawer? Ideally, you should aim to eat all the colours – reds, greens, yellows, blues and purples. Look for produce that is bright and shiny. Eating a colourful variety will help support gut health, ward off illness and prevent premature ageing. Each colour has its own superpower:

Red. Red fruit and berries such as pomegranate, rose hips, goji berries and red peppers contain high levels of anthocyanins, which are thought to be effective in fighting cancer, bacterial infections and neurological diseases

Orange. Carrots, oranges, squashes and sweet potatoes are high in carotenoids – crucial for maintaining a good immune system and supporting cell repair and healthy vision

Yellow. Sweetcorn, pineapple and squashes contain large amounts of bioflavonoids, which fight infection and reduce inflammation

Green. Broccoli, cabbage and spinach contain nutrients including lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin, folic acid and glucosinolates – all of which have been associated with lowering the risk of cancer

Blue and purple. Blueberries, blackberries, grapes and purple sprouting broccoli are extremely high in antioxidants, promote healthy blood, and are thought to have anti-ageing properties

Portion control

Just because you choose to eat a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, good fats and protein doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll lose weight. Remember, if you consume more calories than you need, your body will store these extra calories as fat and you will gain weight. Even if you’re eating the ‘right’ foods, if you eat too much of them, and you’re not active, you’ll be disappointed if your goal is to maintain or lose weight.

Build movement into your daily schedule. Walk to places where you can, try an online HIIT workout for fifteen minutes, take up jogging or yoga. Not only does exercise have a positive impact on your mental health, but regular movement is also an essential part of a balanced approach to weight management.

In terms of portion control, the Rule of Palm is a straightforward method for making sure you don’t overeat. A balanced meal should consist of three key components: protein, complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables. Aim to fill your plate using the following guideline for an easy-to-remember approach to eating and portion control:

  • 1 palm-size portion of protein
  • 1 palm-size portion of complex carbohydrates
  • 2 palm-sized portions of fruit or vegetables

Et voila! A healthy, balanced diet means eating a wide range of fresh, colourful whole foods as well as exercising and ensuring good portion control. However, although it sounds straightforward, cooking from scratch every day with fresh seasonal produce can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

That’s why Balance Box was created. We’re passionate about healthy eating and wellbeing. Our mission is to provide our customers with nutritionally balanced meals, delivered straight to their door. And with different plans, there’s something for everyone no matter what your health goals are. Head over to our meal plan page and see what’s cooking in the Balance Box kitchen.