A 'balanced diet' is a popular topic, in the media, on the government's agenda and amongst the health conscious.
Why? Because, it is an essential part of maintaining immunity, a healthy weight and all other aspects of health and well-being through daily access to the broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients required to properly fuel the body.
However, it's not always clear what a balanced diet means in practice or how best to achieve it.
Part of the confusion arises from the fact that a balanced diet means different things to different people. Arguably, there are limitless versions, not least because everyone is different. A common misconception is that there is a perfect 'one size fits all' diet that is right for everyone.
In reality, a person's precise nutritional requirements will depend, for example, on their age, gender, weight, lifestyle, genetics, medical history, lifestyle, current state of health, environment and numerous other factors.
An athlete, for instance, with high demands regularly placed on their energy levels and recovery processes will have totally different protein requirements to the average person. Similarly, vegetarians and vegans may find that their version of a balanced diet includes higher levels of complete plant protein and plant-based sources of calcium, iron, iodine and vitamin B12.
Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances can also have a significant impact on what a balanced diet means for you. For example, what might be healthy for one person might make another person unwell. Dairy, gluten, soya and nuts are examples of common allergens connected with both allergies and intolerances. Eliminating these foods from the diet as a result would therefore mean re-shaping your diet to ensure that it remained balanced.
Having said all that, there are of course broad principles that can be followed in order to achieve a more balanced diet. As a rule of thumb, and subject to any specific medical advice to the contrary, you should try to:
- include a wide range of nutrient-dense natural whole foods, from all the food groups and in balanced proportions, in your daily diet. This will give you the best chance of accessing all of the nutrients required by the body to function properly and efficiently. For instance, essential fatty acids, complete protein (with all the essential amino acids), digestive enzymes, dietary fibre, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals etc. Variety is key and eating seasonally can help you achieve this aspect of a balanced diet.
- reduce your intake of sugar, saturated fat and highly processed, chemical laden foods, which tend to supply 'empty' calories. Fast foods, junk foods, ready-meals and other refined carbohydrates and foods are not only nutrient-poor, they also often include so-called 'anti-nutrients' which actually drain the body.
- eat a predominantly alkaline diet. Following the two broad principles above should mean that you achieve this naturally, as whole foods (such as plants, fruit and vegetables) tend to be alkalising. In contrast, synthetic processed foods tend to be acidic in the body, which can strain the immune system and lead to ill-health. However, it is worth noting that dairy, meat and certain grains are also highly acid-forming. It is therefore best to eat these foods in moderation, opting for plant-based sources of protein and calcium wherever possible. By eating a diet rich in alkalising foods, you can afford to enjoy the odd acidic 'treat', as you will have the necessary alkalising mineral salts to neutralise them. It is generally recommended to eat a ratio of 80% alkalising foods to 20% acidic foods.
By eating the type of balanced diet described above, you can help to keep your body's toxic load to a minimum. Of course, in this modern age, we are all exposed to toxins and pollutants on a daily basis. However, by being careful about what type of food and drink you put into your body, you can have a significant impact on your toxin levels. For example, by opting for organic produce wherever possible and avoiding artificial chemicals.
The regular intake of herbicides, pesticides, synthetic food additives, preservatives, colourings and flavourings all contribute to toxin build-up in the body. While the liver and other detoxification organs and systems are able to cope with and neutralise many of these, a build-up over time can lead to a high toxic load which can no longer be efficiently dealt with. This can then, in turn, lead to digestive problems, poor immune system, weight gain and all of the problems that come with it (including increased risk of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure etc).
Another point to bear in mind when shaping your balanced diet is that it is never healthy to skip meals. We all know what it's like when you are rushing out the door in the morning, or when a hectic work schedule makes a lunch on-the-go the only option, but starving your body can have serious consequences for your metabolism, weight and overall health, not least because of the effects on your blood sugar levels.