A balanced diet is one that gives your body the nutrients it needs to function correctly. In order to get the proper nutrition from your diet, you should obtain the majority of your daily calories from:
- fresh fruits
- fresh vegetables
- whole grains
- lean proteins
The number of calories in a food is a measurement of the amount of energy stored in that food. Your body uses calories from food for walking, thinking, breathing, and other important functions. The average person needs to eat about 2,000 calories every day to maintain their weight.
However, a person’s specific daily calorie intake can vary depending on their age, gender, and physical activity level. Men generally need more calories than women, and people who exercise need more calories than people who don’t.
The following examples of daily calorie intake are based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines:
- children ages 2 to 8: 1,000 to 1,400 calories
- active women ages 14 to 30: 2,400 calories
- sedentary women ages 14 to 30: 1,800 to 2,000 calories
- active men ages 14 to 30: 2,800 to 3,000 calories
- sedentary men ages 14 to 30: 2,000 to 2,600 calories
- active men and women over 30: 2,200 to 3,000 calories
- sedentary men and women over 30: 1,800 to 2,200 calories
The source of your daily calories is just as important as the number of calories you consume. You should limit your consumption of “empty calories,” or those that provide little or no nutritional value. The USDA defines empty calories as calories that come from sugars and solid fats, such as butter and shortening.
According to the USDA, Americans consume empty calories most often in:
- energy drinks
- fruit drinks
- ice cream
- sports drinks and sodas
A balanced diet is important because your organs and tissues need proper nutrition to work effectively. Without good nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue, and poor performance. Children with a poor diet run the risk of growth and developmental problems and poor academic performance. Bad eating habits can persist for the rest of their lives.
Rising levels of obesity and diabetes in America are prime examples of the effects of a poor diet and a lack of exercise. The USDA reports that four of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States are directly influenced by diet. These are:
- heart disease
At the core of a balanced diet are foods that are low in unnecessary fats and sugars but high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. The following food groups are essential parts of a balanced diet.
Besides being a great source of nutrition, fruits make tasty snacks. Choose fruits that are in season in your area. They’re fresher and provide the most nutrients.
Vegetables are primary sources of essential vitamins and minerals. Dark, leafy greens generally contain the most nutrition and can be eaten at every meal. A variety of vegetables will help you obtain the bountiful nutrients that all vegetables provide. Examples of dark leafy greens include:
- green beans
- collard greens
- Swiss chard
According to the USDA, Americans consume refined white flour more than any other grain. Unfortunately, refined white flour contains poor nutritional value because the hull of the grain is removed during the refining process. The hull is the outer shell of the grain and is where the majority of the grain’s nutrition lies. Whole grains, however, are prepared using the entire grain, including the hull, so they provide much more nutrition. Try switching from white breads and pastas to whole-grain products.
Meats and beans are primary sources of protein, which is essential for proper muscle and brain development. Lean, low-fat meats such as chicken, fish, and certain cuts of pork and beef are the best options. Removing the skin and trimming off any visible fat are easy ways to reduce the amount of fat and cholesterol in meats. The health and diet of the animal are important and influence the fatty acid profile of the meat, so grass-fed choices are ideal.
Other good sources of protein, which contain many other health benefits, fiber and other nutrients, include nuts and beans, such as:
- sunflower seeds
Tofu, tempeh, and other soy-based products are excellent sources of protein and are healthy alternatives to meat.
Dairy products provide calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients. However, they’re also major sources of fat, so it’s best to choose small portions of full-fat cheeses, and reduced-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt. Plant-based milks, such as those made from flaxseed, almond, or soy are typically fortified with calcium and other nutrients, making these excellent alternatives to dairy from cows.
Oils should be used sparingly. Opt for low-fat and low-sugar versions of products that contain oil, such as salad dressing and mayonnaise. Good oils, such as olive oil, can replace fattier vegetable oil in your diet. Avoid deep-fried foods because they contain a large number of empty calories.
The USDA has an online calculator that can help you determine how much of each food group you should consume daily.
Aside from adding certain foods to your diet, you should also reduce your consumption of certain substances in order to maintain a balanced diet and a healthy weight. These include:
- refined grains
- solid fats
- saturated fats
- trans fats
If you have questions about your diet or feel that you need to lose weight or change your eating habits, schedule an appointment with your doctor or a dietitian. They can suggest dietary changes that will help you get the nutrition you need while promoting your overall health.
You Asked, We Answered
- My child is a picky eater. What can I do to ensure that they get a balanced diet?
Helpful tips for meals include:
- offering variety
- always providing at least one well-accepted food
- incorporating less liked foods in a familiar way (like mixing pureed squash into macaroni and cheese or finely shredded zucchini into spaghetti)
- instituting a two-bite or taste rule
Picky eaters often have difficulty with mushy, chewy, or multitextured foods. Therefore, raw veggies may be tolerated better. Experts typically discourage offering different meals to different family members, not modeling healthy eating yourself, and rewarding or penalizing behavior with food.- Natalie Butler, RD, LD