How to build a balanced meal

How to build a balanced meal

It isn’t always possible to grab a balanced meal. Sometimes we eat a quick snack because we are pressed for time, or we treat ourselves to some fast food once in a while. And that is fine. Just be sure to incorporate whole, balanced meals in your diet as much as possible for your lifestyle and budget.

But, what is a balanced meal, exactly?

What does the word ‘balanced’ entail?

Well, when the nutritional experts speak of a balanced meal, they allude to the famous food pyramid. In fact, it has now been changed (official since 2010) by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the ‘Food Plate’.

The food plate is a diagram indicating the exact portions of each food group that needs to be on your dinner plate.

Our bodies need different vitamins, minerals, fats etc in various amounts each day to function optimally. At first, the food pyramid indicated that fat and oils were to be kept to a minimum, while people could consume grains and carbs up to five times a day. It also placed sugars at the top of the pyramid, insinuating that sugars were more important than the other foods on the chart. We now know that that isn’t accurate. The average person also found the pyramid challenging to read, as there were no estimations of what precisely a proper meal would look like in its entirety (it left a lot of guesswork, which meant people usually got it wrong).

Now, the food plate shows what each meal should look like, with more realistic estimations for people to follow.

“With the old pyramids, it was very hard to translate the recommendations into what you should eat,” said Dr Margo Wootan of the Centre for Science in The Public Interest told Huff Post. “This is very straightforward. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it,” she said of the plate.

Toby Smithson, RD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, also said to the publication: “It’s such a recognisable image,” she said. “Everybody has seen a plate, used a plate. It’s much easier to visualise when it’s something we use on a daily basis.”

The Food Plate

The food plate not only shows portions of each food group that should be served but also the serving size as a whole. It takes away the risk of overeating (which in itself is a significant health risk, destroying blood sugar levels, clogging arteries and slowing digestion).

The brightly coloured graphic breaks down a healthy diet into four main sections: fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins, with a small side of dairy. The dairy food group is a source of calcium. Calcium is essential for developing and maintaining healthy teeth and bones. Dairy includes milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Vegetables and legumes are useful in aiding different bodily functions. Legumes are the seeds of the plant and are eaten in their immature form as green peas and beans, and the mature form as dried peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas.

Green veggies are a high source of iron and vitamin A. Carrots are an excellent source of fibre and are high in vitamin C.

Fruits are also packed with unique vitamins and minerals and fill you with healthy, natural sugars for clean energy throughout the day.

The protein section is also essential. Protein is necessary for building muscle mass, repairing tissues and supporting neurological function. Protein can be found in lean meats, but also meat supplements like tofu and beans, says The Medical Society in an article about having a long-lasting balanced diet and lifestyle.

As a rule, most of your carbohydrate intake should come from complex carbohydrates or starches. These are grains, pasta, porridges and so on. They, too, are packed with other nutrients and minerals. When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises in your body, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as an energy source.

“Carbohydrates are macronutrients, meaning they are one of the three main ways the body obtains energy or calories,” says Paige Smathers, a Utah-based registered dietitian.

Why eat a balanced diet?

If you are eating large meals, then feel hungry a few hours later, you may not be giving your body the right stuff. More nutrient-dense meals will make you feel fuller for longer. This is usually only possible with whole or minimally processed foods. 

Now, healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive either. There is a myth that to eat clean is pricey. It certainly can get costly if you would like to add supplements, imported foods or other things like nutritional yeast to your weekly grocery list. But, most farmers’ markets have really good deals on fresh fruit and vegetables.

Lean cuts of meat are more affordable when bought from the local butchery, instead of the supermarket. 

Grains are also very affordable, especially when bought dry and uncooked. Grain foods are mostly made from wheat, oats, rice, rye, barley, millet, quinoa and maize like polenta, buckwheat, spelt, sorghum, triticale, rye and semolina. These grains can be cooked and eaten whole, or ground into flour.

So, if you want to build a balanced meal, divide your plate into four equal sections. One section should have a protein (plant or animal-based is fine), another section should be filled with some greens like lettuce, or perhaps broccoli. A side of grains like rice or polenta on the third section, and then a serving of fruit. Either have the dairy spread over the meal (like some grated cheese, depending on what you’re having) or a glass of milk or yoghurt as a side treat.

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