The Independent Pharmacy

What Is a Balanced Diet and How to Maintain One?

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 17 Apr 2024

So often you hear the words “eat a balanced diet to stay healthy”! But what does this mean, how easy is it in today’s fast-paced world to maintain?

Understanding the concept of a balanced diet and its importance is the key to achieving optimal health and well-being.

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet comprises a combination of macronutrients and micronutrients in the right proportions, with an emphasis on variety.

It is defined as a diet that provides all the essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that your body needs to function properly and is the foundation of good health, which can also help to prevent chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Good health also requires a good level of daily hydration, and limiting intake of salts, sugars and processed foods.

The key components of a balanced diet

Firstly, what do we mean by macronutrients and micronutrients;

  • Macronutrients – these are the nutrients that we need to eat the most for energy and to support most main bodily functions. They are made up of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
  • Micronutrients – these are the nutrients that we need in much smaller amounts, and a balanced diet should provide us with enough of these. They are all our vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

1. Macronutrients

Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of energy and should make up 50-60% of our diet. They can be found in foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Proteins are essential for building and repairing tissues, supporting immune function, and producing enzymes and hormones. Good sources of protein include meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Fats are also crucial for overall health, providing energy, supporting cell growth, protecting organs, and helping the body absorb nutrients. It’s better to choose unsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocados.

2. Micronutrients

Vitamins are vital for metabolism, and immune function. By diversifying your diet to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, and lean meats you can ensure that you're not missing out on any key vitamins that support various aspects of your well-being.

Different vitamins have specific functions that are necessary for optimal health. For instance, vitamin C is well-known for its role in immune function and collagen synthesis, while the B vitamins are essential for energy production and neurological health.

Minerals are necessary for building strong bones, transferring nerve impulses, and maintaining fluid balance. Incorporate foods like leafy greens, dairy products, and nuts to ensure an adequate intake of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium.

Minerals are not just important for physical health but also mental well-being. For example, magnesium is often referred to as the "relaxation mineral" due to its role in calming the nervous system and promoting better sleep. Similarly, iron is crucial for oxygen transport in the blood, which directly impacts energy levels and cognitive function. By paying attention to the mineral content of your diet, you can support both your physical vitality and mental clarity.

Fibre aids digestion and helps maintain stable blood sugar levels, and good sources include whole grains and vegetables.

3. Hydration

Water is essential for overall health, aiding in digestion, nutrient absorption, and body temperature regulation.

The role of calories and energy balance

Calorie counting is always closely related to diet, and your energy balance will affect weight gain or loss.

Energy balance involves the equilibrium between "ENERGY IN" (calories consumed) and "ENERGY OUT" (calories burned through physical activity).

Here's a simple breakdown:

Energy IN vs. Energy OUT

  • Equal amounts of ENERGY IN and OUT over time result in stable body weight.
  • Excess ENERGY IN compared to OUT leads to weight gain; conversely, more OUT than IN facilitates weight loss.

Managing Energy Balance

Adjusting calorie intake and physical activity levels can help maintain this balance. For example, consuming 150 calories less per day or increasing ENERGY OUT by engaging in activities like walking two miles or dancing can prevent unwanted weight gain.

Impact of Energy Balance

Energy balance affects not just body weight but also essential cellular functions, including metabolism and hormonal balance. Small, sustainable changes in daily habits, such as reducing calorie intake by 100 kcal or incorporating moderate physical activities, can significantly influence energy balance and prevent weight gain.

By understanding and applying the principles of energy balance, you can make informed decisions about your diet and activity levels to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

How to incorporate variety for nutritional balance

Balanced doesn’t have to mean boring! Experimenting with different cuisines will keep things interesting and make it much easier to maintain a healthy diet long-term.

Shopping seasonally will vary the produce, and not only will it taste better but also offers a variety of nutrients. Try different spices and herbs, along with new fruits and vegetables will help to add excitement.

Here are some practical ways to diversify your diet:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: Aim for at least five portions daily, prioritising a spectrum of colours to maximise nutrient intake. For example:
    • Vibrant Colours: choose different coloured fruits and vegetables each week, using the rainbow as inspiration.
    • Diverse Textures: incorporate a variety of textures, from crunchy carrots to smooth avocados, to make meals more interesting and nutritionally rich.
  • Grains and Proteins: Mix whole grains with refined varieties, and try different protein sources, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean meats, to ensure a comprehensive nutrient profile. Suggestions include:
    • Grains: alternate between quinoa, brown rice, oats, and barley.
    • Proteins: vary your protein intake by including beans, pulses, fish, eggs, and tofu regularly.
  • Healthy Fats and Dairy: Use unsaturated oils like olive or soy for cooking and dressing. Choose dairy or fortified dairy alternatives to meet calcium and vitamin D needs. Limiting intake of saturated fats from animal sources or processed foods helps to maintain heart health and manage weight.

Tips to maintain a balanced diet

With a few simple strategies, you can easily maintain a balanced diet and make healthier food choices.

  1. Meal planning: Plan your meals to ensure a variety of nutrients; cook at home using whole or minimally processed foods.
  2. Avoid ‘dietary mistakes’: Never skip meals to prevent overeating later. Find health alternatives to your favourite snacks and develop strategies to manage cravings. Sometimes dehydration can be mistaken for hunger, so drink some water first and wait 10 minutes to see if you’re still hungry. Practice portion control and eat from smaller plates to manage calorie intake effectively.
  3. Lifestyle adjustments: Stress and lack of sleep are contributing factors to overeating, so find ways that work for you to reduce stress levels such as yoga, a walk, reading a book or listening to some calming music before bed, and make sure your room is cool to help you sleep better.

To summarise, by understanding the foundation of a balanced diet, incorporating a variety of foods and making good practical choices, a healthy diet can be maintained long-term and become less of a chore and more of a habit. Start with small, sustainable changes and build on this over time.

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