You’ve heard it said before that a healthy diet is all about balance. Some live by the 80/20 principle, others follow paleo or ketogenic diet plans, but ultimately, too much or too little of anything can lead to nutritional problems. There is no one-size-fits-all plan, but we’ll take a look at several key principles that medical professionals agree constitute a balanced diet.
Although still the subject of hot debate, the three key principles that traditionally guide a balanced diet are:
- Major on the carbohydrates
- Go easy on the fat
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
Let’s take a closer look at each of these to understand how they lead to balanced diet:
- Major on the carbohydrates:
Carbohydrates are the main constituent of a properly balanced diet and should account for 70 percent of total calories ingested. I’m not just saying to fill yourself up on bread for 70 percent of your food intake. Instead, I’m recommending carbohydrates that come through a variety of sources.
Main sources for dietary carbohydrates include:
• Cereals, such as wheat, oats, rye, barley, maize and rice
• All kinds of fruit and vegetables
• Milk and cheese, and their products (and watch out for refined carbohydrates, added to foods during manufacture)
The best carbohydrates to eat are those with a low glycaemic index, meaning they cause a slow and gentle rise in blood sugar. Examples of these are potato, rice, and wholemeal bread. High glycaemic foods such as sweets, chocolate, and jams, cause a rapid and steep increase in blood sugar. The biochemistry of carbohydrates is explained in detail in my book here.
- Go easy on the fats
Dietary fats are essential to a healthy diet as they are energy-dense and carry fat-soluble vitamins. They are some of the basic building blocks of many important chemicals and hormones. But because they can be so tasty, they can be an influential factor in gaining weight. Saturated fats are correlated to death from stroke and heart disease as they affect your cholesterol level. So how do we manage fats to gain the health benefits without the deteriorating ones?
We’ll learn by taking a closer look a several types of fats and their recommended consumption.
A few types of fats to be aware of:
• Saturated fats. These are the most likely to raise cholesterol levels.
• Polyunsaturated fats. Also known as omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. These do not raise cholesterol levels.
• Monounsaturated fats. Also known as omega-9. These do not raise cholesterol levels.
An easy rule of thumb to remember these by is that saturated fats are solid at room temperature (i.e. butter) whereas unsaturated fats are liquid (i.e. olive oil).
To manage your fats for a healthy diet, it is recommended that
• Fat consumption provides no more than 25-30 percent of total calorie intake
• Saturated fats account for no more than 10 percent of calories
• The consumption of omega-3 fats (such as fish oil) be increased to provide 0.2g per day
- Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables
We all know fruits and vegetables are beneficial for a healthy diet, but let’s take a look at why they are so highly recommended.
Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, which research has shown to significantly reduce risk of heart disease, stroke, cataracts, and cancer. They are a convenient way to reduce fat consumption and obtain more fibre.
What is the recommended advice towards consumption? To be eating at least four to five portions (400g) of fruit and vegetables a day.
Each of these principles can be summarised and simplified in the food pyramid.
The concept of this pyramid, provided by the Department of Health, is that the foods on the bottom tier should be eaten often, whereas foods in the top tier should be eaten sparingly. If you follow these guidelines, you will be eating a balanced, nutritious and healthy diet.