Food and what to eat is a hot topic. It seems like every month there is a new expert with a book, podcast, or blog about the foods you need to be eating for better health right now.
High protein. Low carb. Fruits and vegetables, but not juice. Smoothies but only green ones. Yes to fat but not too much. Sugar but only Saturdays. Superfoods at every meal. Never eat red M&M’s.
Okay, we got a bit silly at the end – but you get the idea. There is so much mixed messaging out there about food that it can be downright confusing to know how to eat to support your health – while still enjoying food.
The message we really like about food and eating is BALANCE. Aiming for balanced nutrition is perhaps the simplest way to approach food choices. With balanced nutrition, you focus on getting everything your body needs but do not stress about (or avoid) a piece of cake, wing night, or ice cream for supper (yes, we all do it once in a while).
And we know – the term balanced nutrition is not that clear either. Especially when you’re trying to understand how it fits in with the latest news articles about food and what all the health-conscious people are eating, social media posts about the new superfoods, and hearing about the latest diet your friends and family members are following this week.
With this blog, we focus on giving you actionable information about balanced nutrition, explaining what it is, the fundamentals of balanced nutrition, and how to make it part of your everyday.
What is Balanced Nutrition?
Balanced nutrition can be achieved by giving your body the nutrients it needs to support your daily activities and long-term health. Every day, your body depends on the foods you eat to provide the calories, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, fat, and hydration it needs to function correctly.1
When focusing on balanced nutrition, your diet should primarily consist of:1
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Nuts and legumes
- Lean proteins
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025 includes four overarching guidelines that underscore the importance of balanced nutrition for every single person:2
- Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
- Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
- Focus on meeting daily food group requirements with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, while staying within calorie limits.
- Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, as well as alcoholic beverages.
This key point from the guidelines neatly summarizes the principles of balanced nutrition:2
It’s about the pattern of eating, not just healthy choices here and there. The Dietary Guidelines focuses on the combination of foods and beverages that make up an individual’s whole diet over time, and not single foods or eating occasions in isolation. Research shows that the ongoing pattern of an individual’s eating habits has the greatest impact on their health.2
The Fundamentals of Balanced Nutrition*
Think of these fundamentals of balanced nutrition as the floor plan to your house – they give form and structure to your meals and create space for you to customize your food choices to meet your unique needs and preferences.
The fundamentals of balanced nutrition include following a consistent eating pattern that integrates these core dietary elements:3
- Fruits – focus on whole fruit, for example, an apple instead of apple pie
- Vegetables – eat the rainbow, include a wide variety of colors like red, orange, dark green, yellow, white, purple, etc. For example, spinach, red peppers, eggplant, zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, peas, and any vegetables you enjoy.
- Grains – aim for half of these whole grain servings to be from actual whole grains, for example, brown rice instead of a rice cake or cracker.
- Dairy – prioritize fat-free or low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and/or dairy alternatives. For example, skim or 1% milk instead of homogenized milk.
- Protein – from a wide range of sources including lean meat, eggs, poultry, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and soy products. For example, chicken breast instead of chicken nuggets.
- Oils – prioritize vegetable oils and the natural oils occurring in nuts and seeds. For example, avocado, olive, or sesame oil for cooking and seasoning.
The nutrient density of the foods you eat is essential to balanced nutrition. You want your food to be rich in both macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (essential minerals and vitamins).4
Rather than focusing on the calorie content of your food, consider its nutrient density.4
For example, a sesame vegetable and chicken stir-fry with red and orange peppers, mushrooms, spinach, and onions served with brown rice ticks all the boxes for protein, carbohydrates, fat, and essential vitamins and minerals – but it is likely higher in calories than instant noodles.
However, the health benefits of the vegetable and chicken stir-fry far outweigh the minimal nutrients in the instant noodles. When you have a choice, choose the stir-fry.
There are times of course, when it’s difficult to eat the rainbow, prepare healthful meals, or even find time to boil an egg! We get it – life is busy! This is how and where supplements such as vitamins and minerals help fill in nutritional gaps, ensuring you’re getting sufficient nutrients to maintain optimal health and wellbeing.*
The Importance of Consistent Dietary Patterns and Nutrient Density
Your goal is healthful, balanced foods for life – each day should include meals and snacks that deliver the carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients you need to get the most from your day, while giving your body what it needs.1, 3 *
You can do this by focusing on consistent dietary patterns and nutrient density.4,5*
- Dietary Patterns: focus on the balance of food quantities, types, combinations, and varieties of food over your lifetime. Consistent, healthful dietary patterns are important for every stage of life and can fluctuate based on your unique physical, dietary, and age-based needs.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025 says: a dietary pattern represents the totality of what individuals habitually eat and drink, and the parts of the pattern act synergistically to affect health. As a result, the dietary pattern may better predict overall health status and disease risk than individual foods or nutrients.
- Nutrient Density: refers to the amount of nutrients in food in relation to the number of calories it contains and provides you with. Every single food contains calories, but not every food is nutrient dense. The nutrient density of the foods you eat varies depending on how the food is prepared. For example, your homemade pizza is likely more nutrient dense than take-out or frozen pizza.
Here is how the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025 describes nutrient density: foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium— are nutrient-dense foods.
Above all else, we want you to know that these explanations and fundamentals of balanced nutrition are not rigid definitions of what you can and cannot eat.
When building balanced diets, there aren’t any food rules. Rather, it is more a matter of food choices. By making thoughtful choices and finding creative but practical ways to get the most benefit from the foods you consume, your health and vitality will be nourished and supported and you will begin to feel the difference.
Real-Life Balanced Nutrition
You start off the week with a healthy eating plan – fresh fruit for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and a supper of salad, barbecued chicken breasts, and a baked potato. You promise yourself that you’ll stick to this meal plan from now on…
But by Wednesday you’re feeling tired and bored with your food, and you just want something tasty and delicious. So, you skip the fruit and have your favorite cereal for breakfast, lunch is a quick (but delicious) grilled cheese sandwich, and supper is a few slices of take-out vegetarian pizza.
And you vow to get back to healthy eating next week.
We understand. It’s not easy to find the balance between consistent, healthy dietary patterns and nutrient density – while still eating food you enjoy the most.
Here's a secret – if you add fresh strawberries to your cereal (think overnight oats instead of sugar puffs) and use skim milk, make your grilled cheese with real cheese (not processed), use whole-grain bread and add some chopped carrots, celery, and red pepper as a side, and make your own vegetarian pizza – you are meeting the fundamentals of balanced nutrition.*
When you sit down to eat or plan your meals ask these questions:1, 2, 4 *
- How many colors are on my plate? The more colors – the more variety and the more nutrient density.
- Where did these foods come from? Healthier choices come from the perimeter of the grocery store and aren’t wrapped in plastic or cardboard boxes.
- What will my plate look like? Aim for a plate that is half fruits and vegetables, one quarter protein, and one quarter whole grains.
- Why am I eating this? If you don’t like the food or enjoy the way it’s prepared, don’t eat it. Food enjoyment is critical to balanced nutrition and overall physical and mental health.
And yes, there are times when you want a donut for breakfast or sugary cereal for supper. This is okay. The goal is to ensure that these types of meals are not the norm for you.
The foods, beverages, and supplements you consume need to be high-quality. You are what you eat – so give your body the nutrients it needs to support a lifetime of good health.
Now, what’s for dinner?
Consult your healthcare team before making changes to your nutrition, exercise, or supplements. Discuss all supplements, including the vitamins and minerals you take or plan to take, as these may interact differently with underlying health conditions and medication. Always follow the suggested use instructions and read the warnings on the supplement product label before consumption.
- Balanced Diet: Healthline.com (Accessed July 20, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/health/balanced-diet
- Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025: Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Accessed July 20, 2023) https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials/top-10-things-you-need-know
- 2020 – 2024 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Executive Summary (Accessed July 20, 2023) https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/DGA_2020-2025_ExecutiveSummary_English.pdf
- The Definitive Guide to Healthy Eating in Real Life: Healthline.com (Accessed July 20, 2023) https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-eat-healthy-guide
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020 – 2025 (Accessed July 20, 2023) https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Jenny Perez is an herbal educator, researcher, and writer who has been immersed in the field of nutrition and botanical medicine for more than 20 years. Jenny has created curriculum, content, and educational materials for Quantum Nutrition Labs, Premier Research Labs, the American Botanical Council, and Bastyr University’s Botanical Medicine Department where she was Adjunct Faculty, Herb Garden Manager, and Director of the Holistic Landscape Design certificate program.