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What Is a Balanced Diet?
A balanced diet is one that includes:
- A variety of foods
- Foods from all the major food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy
- Appropriate amounts of these foods
Why Should I Eat a Balanced Diet?
A balanced diet can provide all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient that your body needs. This diet will also support your overall health and well-being. It will help you to look and feel your best.
When combined with regular physical activity, a balanced diet can help prevent conditions such as:
How to Eat a Balanced Diet
Balancing each meal with the proper food groups and the correct amount of food is the start of a balanced diet. At first, you will need to plan each meal. Once you are more comfortable with food groups and portion sizes, it will be easier to create balanced meals. Some key tips from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) include:
- Enjoy food, but eat less.
- Half of your plate should be filled with vegetables or fruits.
- Half of the grains you consume should be whole grains.
- When consuming dairy, choose fat-free or low-fat (1%) options.
- Keep sodium levels in your diet low. Choose foods low in sodium.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Choose My Plate is a website of the USDA. It can help you identify foods by their food group and show how much of each food to include in a meal.
Exact amounts of each food group and calories you will need vary based on your age, sex, and activity level.
A Closer Look at the Food Groups
There are 2 main types of grains: refined and whole. Refined grains are grain products missing the nutritional elements of the whole grain because of processing. Enriched grains are processed grains that have nutrients like vitamins, folic acid, and iron added back in.
Whole grains are in their natural form with the entire grain seed, which includes the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains come in a many varieties. You may see labels with the words cracked, crushed, or flaked. Many grains are also a source of dietary fiber.
Grains Balanced Eating Guide
Daily amount: 6 ounces
- Half of your daily grains should be whole grains
- Whole grains include: 100% whole wheat products, whole rye, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, barley, bulgur, and popcorn
Labels are not always what they seem, so learn to read them in order to maximize your food knowledge. For example, whole wheat bread is not the same as whole grain bread. Whole grain should be the first ingredient on the list. Ideally, food should have as few ingredients as possible. The more ingredients a product has, the more processed and less natural it is.
Vegetables can be divided into 5 subgroups: dark green, orange, dry beans and peas, starchy, and other. Each of these groups provides different nutritional values. Vegetables in the dark green and orange groups are rich in vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants.
Vegetables in the dry beans and peas group provide considerable amounts of protein, iron, and zinc. They are also considered part of the protein group.
Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, contain more carbohydrate than other vegetables and are sometimes treated as part of the grains group. If you are keeping track of what you are eating, count them in one group, not both.
Vegetables Balanced Eating Guide
Daily amount: 2.5 cups
- Eat a variety of different vegetables every day
- Dark green vegetables such as like broccoli, spinach, bok choy, or romaine lettuce
- Orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash
- Dry beans and peas such as chickpeas, black beans, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, or tofu
When it comes to fruit, fresh, dried, frozen, or canned are all excellent choices. Fruit juice packs in a lot of calories and does not contain all the added fiber of foods eaten in their whole form. Like vegetables, fruits are an important source of vitamins and antioxidants.
Fruits Balanced Eating Guide
Daily Amount: 2 cups
- Eat a variety of fruit
- Choose fresh fruit over fruit juices
- Choose fruit varieties without added sugar
Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, and milk is also fortified with vitamin D, a vitamin that many of us would otherwise not get enough of. Individuals who choose not to eat dairy should be sure to include other calcium-rich or calcium-fortified foods in their diet. You may also consider supplements of calcium and vitamin D.
Dairy Balanced Eating Guide
Daily Amount: 3 cups
- Dairy products include milk, yogurt, and cheese
- Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products
- Milk alternatives include calcium-rich or calcium-fortified foods and beverages, like green leafy vegetables or orange juice
The protein group includes poultry, fish, beef, eggs, nuts, beans, and legumes. These foods are our main source of protein, along with other key nutrients such as iron and zinc.
Proteins Balanced Eating Guide
Daily Amount: 5.1 ounces
- Choose lean meats and poultry
- Eat more fish and vegetarian sources of protein to limit your intake of saturated fats
- Eat a variety of protein each day. Consider eating beans, peas, nuts, or seeds
Other Foods and Beverages
Foods and beverages high in added sugar or solid fat should be consumed in limited amounts. These foods include cookies, cake, ice cream, soda, muffins, French fries, and potato chips. For the most part, these foods are low in nutrients and high in calories.
Other Foods and Beverages Eating Guide
Daily amount: <265 calories
- Limit or avoid solid and processed oils and fats, such as stick margarine, lard, hydrogenated oil, and shortening.
- Limit foods high in added sugar or processed fats.
- Be aware that specialty coffees can contain high amounts of sugar and fat.
- Use substitutions. Snack on almonds instead of a candy bar.
Alcoholic beverages, if consumed, should be limited to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women.
Suggestions on Eating a Balanced Diet
A balanced diet will help you meet all your nutrient needs and stay healthy. Here are some final suggestions on how to eat a balanced diet:
- Fill your dinner plate with half veggies, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter lean protein.
- Choose whole grains over refined, processed grains whenever possible.
- Strive to eat a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables every day.
- Drink more water and limit low-nutrient or high-calorie beverages such as soda, diet soda, juices, and whole milk.
- Use herbs and spices in place of salt during cooking.
- Avoid eating trans fats and limit intake of animal fat.
- Choose foods prepared by steaming, grilling, broiling, baking, or poaching; limit fried foods.
- Do not get stuck in a rut, eat a variety of different foods from each group.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with a miniportion of what you are craving.
- Cook at home more often and eat out less. When eating out, ask for extra veggies, skip the sauces, and share large portions.
- Consider talking to a registered dietitian about creating a personalized eating plan.
Remember to go slowly. You do not have to make drastic changes when starting out. Try simple daily substitutions. Before you know it, you will be eating right every day.
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Dietitians of Canada
Health Canada Food and Nutrition
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed September 9, 2015.
Food Groups. United States Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov. Accessed September 9, 2015.
- Reviewer: Dianne Scheinberg Rishikof MS, RD, LDN
- Review Date: 09/2015
- Update Date: 08/18/2014