Balanced Diet

Written by Brian Krans | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

A balanced diet is one that gives your body the nutrition it needs to function properly. In order to get truly balanced nutrition, you should obtain the majority of your daily calories from fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

What Are Calories?

The number of calories in a meal is a measure of the amount of energy stored in that food. Your body uses calories from food for walking, thinking, breathing, and everything else it does. The average person needs to eat about 2,000 calories every day to maintain his or her weight.

A person’s daily calorie intake should be based on age, gender, and physical activity level. Men generally need more calories than women, and active people need more calories than sedentary (inactive) people.

The following examples of calorie intake are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines:

  • children ages 2 to 8: 1,000 to 1,400
  • active women ages 14 to 30: 2,400
  • sedentary women ages 14 to 30: 1,800 to 2,000
  • active men ages 14 to 30: 2,800 to 3,000
  • sedentary men ages 14 to 30: 2,000 to 2,600
  • active men and women over 30: 2,200 to 3,000
  • sedentary men and women over 30: 1,800 to 2,200

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:

  • bacon and sausages
  • cakes
  • cheese
  • cookies
  • doughnuts
  • energy drinks
  • fruit drinks
  • ice cream
  • pizza
  • sports drinks and sodas

Why a Balanced Diet Is Important

A balanced diet is important because your body’s 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. Bad eating habits can continue for the rest of their lives.

Rising levels of obesity and diabetes in America are prime examples of the effects of poor diet and 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
  • cancer
  • stroke
  • diabetes

How to Achieve a Balanced Diet

At the core of a balanced diet are foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and low in unnecessary fats and sugars. The following are essential parts of a balanced diet.

Fruits

Besides being a great source of nutrition, fruits make quick and tasty snacks. Choose fruits that are in season in your area—they are fresher and provide the most nutrients.

Vegetables

Vegetables are primary sources of essential vitamins and minerals. Dark, leafy greens generally contain the most nutrition and can be eaten at every meal. Examples include spinach, kale, green beans, broccoli, and collard greens.

Grains

In the United States, we consume refined white flour more than any other grain. During the refining process, the hull of the grain—the outer shell—is removed. Unfortunately, the hull is where the majority of the grain’s nutrition lies. Whole grains, which are prepared using the entire grain, including the hull, provide much more nutrition. Try switching from white to whole-grain breads and pastas.

Proteins

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 beef and pork are the best option. Removing the skin and trimming off any visible fat are easy ways to reduce the amount of fat and cholesterol in meats.

Nuts and beans, such as lentils, peas, almonds, sunflower seeds, and walnuts, are also good sources of protein. Tofu, tempeh, and other soy-based products are excellent sources of protein and are healthy alternatives to meat.

Dairy

Dairy products provide calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients. However, they are also major sources of fat, so it is best to choose reduced-fat or fat-free cheeses, milk, and yogurt.

Oils

Oils should be used sparingly. Opt for low-fat 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 foods that have been deep-fried in oil because they contain a large number of empty calories.

The USDA has an online calculator to help you figure out how much of each type of food you should consume daily. Try it here.

The USDA highlights these key substances that Americans should consume less of in order to maintain a balanced diet and a healthy weight:

  • alcohol
  • cholesterol
  • refined grains
  • solid and saturated fats
  • salt
  • sugars

If you have questions about your diet or feel that you need to lose weight or eat better, schedule an appointment with your doctor or a nutritionist. They can suggest dietary changes that will help you get the nutrition you need and, if necessary, lose weight.

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