Components of a Balanced Diet

Hello everyone! The discussion on the table today is about the components of a balanced diet. Incorporating these components is crucial as we use mindful nutrition to help manage prediabetes and metabolic syndrome.

What we consume to fuel and nourish our bodies is a foundational component of our health. 

Before we start, I want to note that I don’t believe in demonizing foods. Often, we eat items that are accessible to us at any given time. This is a normal part of life.

Specific foods are not “good” or “bad.” As long as you don’t have certain conditions or food allergies, you can incorporate any food into an overall healthy diet.

The key is creating a balance of foods that support everyday health and foods that satisfy a sweet tooth, craving, or social connection with friends and family. Balance, variety, and moderation enable you to enjoy the foods you love and those that nourish you.

Three main components make up a balanced diet: macronutrients, micronutrients, and water. Some of you may be familiar with these terms, while others may have thought, “What in the world are macronutrients and micronutrients?” Do not worry if you are unsure of their definitions; I will go over them in a little more depth later.

Now, there are other components besides macronutrients, micronutrients, and water that go into making a balanced diet. For now, though, we will stick to these three.

I will also talk about some practical ways to ensure you consume a balanced diet with the components your body needs.


Component 1: The Macronutrients

The macronutrients that make up a balanced diet are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. 

Macronutrients give us energy in the form of calories.

They are referred to as “macronutrients,” the prefix macro, meaning large, because we need these types of nutrients in larger quantities.

Many of the diets you may have heard about on TV or social media like to target a specific type of macronutrient by overly restricting their followers from carbohydrates, protein, or fat. Diets like these are not well-balanced and should be avoided unless medically necessary.

Each macronutrient is vital for the unique role it plays in our diet.

Now, let’s go over the three macronutrients in a little more detail.

Proteins

Proteins are made of amino acids. Amino acids are considered the building blocks for certain parts of the body. 

Amino acids are in our skin, bones, muscles, hair, nails, organs, and practically anywhere else in the body that you can think of. 

Not only do amino acids give our body structure, but they also help regulate the body’s chemical processes, maintain fluid balances, and assist tissue repair and immunity [1].

Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates are molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Sugars, starches, and fiber are types of carbohydrates.

When we eat starches and sugar, they break down into glucose in our bloodstream. This makes them an easy energy source for our body’s organs, tissues, and cells.

Even though fiber is not utilized as energy, it takes on another important task. As we digest our food, insoluble fiber from whole grains and many vegetables helps to regulate our bowel movements. 

Soluble fiber helps to decrease the blood’s cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar [2].

Fats:

Fats are a necessary part of a balanced diet. They are made from fatty acids, and they provide the body with energy. They also play an essential role in enabling your body to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Additionally, fats are needed for brain development, hormone regulation, and even blood clotting [3] when you experience cuts, tears, or ulcers.

Far too many negative comments are being made against fats. Fats are fantastic in so many ways, but paying attention to the sources of fats in your diet is essential.

Saturated fats and hydrogenated (trans) fats raise LDL cholesterol levels. LDL cholesterol is associated with adverse health effects.

On the other hand, mono and unsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol.

We need fat in our diets, but some affect our health differently.

Component 2: Micronutrients

The micronutrients are nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They are called micronutrients, the prefix micro meaning small because we only need a small amount.

Even though you only need a little, they are still essential. Not having enough vitamins or minerals can lead to severe and dangerous health issues.

Micronutrients assist in many body processes, including the production of hormones, enzymes, and other substances. 

In children, micronutrients are necessary for proper growth and development.

They also play a part in mental clarity and adequate energy levels in adults [4].

Component 3: Water

Have you heard the stories of people living up to a few weeks to a few months without food but only a few days without water? 

Water deserves all the credit its given when it comes to our diet. Adequate fluid is essential for both long-term and short-term survival.

The human body is made up of 55% to 65% water [5]. Water is involved in many functions of the body like maintaining the body’s temperature, cushioning joints, keeping tissues moist, and getting rid of waste [6], to name a few.

Even if you have adequate hydration to sustain life, if you do not get enough, you can develop symptoms of dehydration. 

Milder symptoms of dehydration include thirst, fatigue, headaches, dry skin and lips, dizziness, and concentrated urine that appears darker in color.

If left untreated, dehydration can lead to low blood pressure, electrolyte changes, lethargy, fever, heart palpitations, confusion, and even death [5].

Now that you know more about the main components of a balanced diet, let’s talk about how you can apply that information.

Mindful nutrition helps you bring all the components of a balanced and satisfying diet together in an approach you can practice for the rest of your life.

Image depicting oils, carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water.

Now let’s take a look at the different food groups.

Fruits

Fruits contain many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and plant compounds like antioxidants and phytonutrients. 

You may ask, “What are antioxidants and phytonutrients?” Well, I am glad you asked.

Antioxidants is a term given to substances in food that can provide electrons to chemical compounds called ‘free radicals.’ 

Free radicals come from foods, exercise, inhaling cigarette smoke, sunlight, and air pollution. Free radicals love to consume electrons. 

This stealing of electrons can cause damage to DNA strands and cell damage. 

Antioxidants feed electrons to free radicals so they do not steal electrons from the body. They also help repair and maintain cellular health and DNA strands [8].

Phytonutrients are compounds that give plants their color, taste, and aromas, including fruits and vegetables. 

Phytonutrients are associated with having anti-cancer and anti-heart disease benefits [9].

Research is still being conducted on antioxidants and phytonutrients to discover more about their effects on the body.

Sometimes, you may think you shouldn’t eat fruits because of their carbohydrate or sugar content. 

Please do not withhold yourself from eating whole fruits and vegetables because of this thought.

The carbs and sugars in fruit and vegetables are not your enemy. They will provide your body with energy, and eating them has an abundance of benefits. 

Individual needs may vary, but consuming 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of fruit per day is recommended for most adults.

The fruit’s components aid digestion, promote heart health and may help prevent cancer [8]. 

Fruits have a variety of flavors that you can use in savory and sweet dishes. When prepared properly, they can add flavor and nutrients to meals.

Vegetables

Like fruits, vegetables have a lot of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and beneficial plant compounds.

They support digestion, heart health, and cancer prevention [10]. 

Vegetables are great for creating the base of a meal. They can be prepared with several spices and herbs to taste delicious and provide significant nutrients to your body simultaneously! 

Vegetables can be either starchy or non-starchy.

Starchy vegetables include white potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, winter squash, etc. 

Starchy vegetables are high in carbohydrates. Although these can be part of a healthy diet, it is important to balance them with non-starchy vegetables like green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, summer squash, etc.

For example, choose at least one non-starchy vegetable instead of having two starchy vegetables, such as corn and mashed potatoes, in the same meal.

Non-starchy vegetables are also great for snacks. They provide lots of nutrients and fiber, with only a few calories.

Mix them with a small amount of protein like peanut butter, hummus, or cheese for a satisfying, long-lasting snack.

For adults, individual needs for vegetables vary from 2 to 3 1/2 cups per day.

Proteins

Protein is known to provide feelings of fullness compared to refined carbohydrates [11]. Adding proteins to meals and snacks helps you feel fuller longer.

Suppose you want to avoid eating animal-derived proteins. In that case, many plant-based proteins like legumes, tofu, lentils, and more may be excellent fits for you.

Most adults need between 5 and 7 ounces of protein per day.

Grains

Grains are lovely because you can prepare them to go with all kinds of diverse dishes. It is no wonder that countries worldwide base many of their meals around the grains found within their area. 

Whole grains usually offer the most nutrients out of this food group. The fiber, iron, B vitamins, and healthy fats found in whole grains can help regulate blood sugar, bowel movements, and lower cholesterol levels [12]. 

You can make a meal with a vegetable base and use a grain for a tasty side dish. I love how grains can be paired with almost anything.

Depending on individual needs, most adults need 6 to 10 one-ounce equivalents of grains per day.

Dairy (or Dairy Substitutes)

Dairy products are an excellent way to get calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that are great for maintaining the health of your bones, heart, muscles, and nerves. 

Items with dairy are also a great source of magnesium and potassium [13].

If you do not wish to have animal-derived dairy products or have an allergy or intolerance to them, try searching for alternatives fortified with calcium. Soy, almond, or oat milk fortified with calcium can be an excellent fit for you.

The recommended amount of dairy for adults is 3 cups per day.

Fats

This food group has many negative connotations because there are all kinds of advertisements and programs that make fat a foe.

Fat is a necessary food group because the fatty acids they provide help store energy, assist proteins, and start several chemical reactions within the body [14]. 

However, it is true that too much saturated fat, mainly from animal products, can cause a build-up of bad cholesterol in arteries and veins and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

It is best to exchange saturated fats for unsaturated fats whenever possible.   

Unsaturated fats help reduce cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation. They are in plant products like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

Although sources of unsaturated fats can provide fantastic benefits, keep in mind that all fats are concentrated sources of calories, providing about nine calories per gram. 

Remember that a little goes a long way with fats to make your meals tasty and provide you with energy. It can be easy to overdo them and feel groggy, weighed down, or fatigued after overeating. 

That is why it is essential to be mindful as you eat foods with higher fat content.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting fat to about 20 to 35 percent of total calories, with no more than 10% of those coming from saturated fats [14].

For example, if you need about 1800 calories daily, that would translate to 360 to 630 calories or 40 to 70 grams of fat/day. Of that, it is recommended that no more than 4 to 7 grams come from saturated fat. 

If you are curious about your recommended calorie needs, visit MyPlate Plan.

Beverages

Any meal would be incomplete without a drink to go with it.

Of course, water is a great choice, but other options like milk, fruit-infused water, coffee, tea, and some carbonated drinks are also good to help us achieve adequate hydration. 

Since our bodies need lots of fluids for hydration, look for options without sugar, high levels of sodium, or caffeine. 

The daily staple drinks I recommend are water, milk, and some diet drinks that are sweetened with stevia, sucralose, allulose, or monk fruit.

Recommendations vary widely, but most adults should have a minimum of 1500 mL (6 cups) of fluid daily.

Various factors, including age, body size, temperature of the environment, physical activity, and health conditions, influence fluid needs. 

In clinical nutrition, I recommend a fluid intake of roughly 30 milliliters per kilogram of body weight or 1 mL of fluid per calorie consumed.

In the real world, this translates to about one-half to one ounce of fluid per pound of body weight. 

For example, if you weigh 150 lbs, your estimated need would be about 75 to 150 ounces (9 to 18, 8 oz cups) of fluid per day [15]. That is a wide range, so listen to your body.

If you are thirsty, have something to drink. If you are sweating during a hot day, or exercising have water on hand and keep sipping on it. 

You may need the upper end of your fluid recommendation if you are running a fever. 

On the other hand, if you are inside, well, and working at the computer or watching TV, you probably only need the lower end of the recommended range. 

Also, keep in mind that if you have health conditions like kidney stones, heart failure, or kidney disease, you need to ask your healthcare provider about your individual fluid needs.

four glasses of water with different flavorings like citrus fruits, berries, and rosemary

MyPlate

One of my favorite resources to recommend for those learning about a balanced diet is MyPlate.

Developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), MyPlate is a guide that can help you visualize meals and understand what nutritious portion sizes look like. 

It provides a simple, food group-based way to build a healthy diet one plate at a time [7].

Here are some of the fundamental recommendations of MyPlate

1. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Choosing a variety is important to supply all the needed nutrients.

-You can eat fruits whole, dried, fresh, canned (packed in 100% juice), frozen, pureed, or cooked. Fruits prepared with these methods count towards the fruit food group. 100% fruit juice also counts, although consuming a whole piece of fruit gives you more fiber.

-Vegetables can be raw, canned, frozen, fresh, cooked, cut up, whole, mashed, or dried. Like fruits, 100% vegetable juice can also contribute to the vegetable food group.

2. Plant or animal protein should make up about 1/4 of your plate. If choosing animal sources, pick the leaner options.

3. Fill a quarter of your plate with grains. At least half of those grains should be whole grains.

4. Try choosing oils and fats that are plant-based.

5. Make healthy beverage choices [7].

Now, let’s look at each food group and what it can contribute to a balanced diet.

Please remember that although each group brings its own mix of nutrients, if you have an allergy or intolerance to a specific group, such as dairy, or prefer to avoid animal products; you can still build a healthy plate without those items.

The key is finding alternative sources of the nutrients those food groups provide.

For example, suppose you need to avoid dairy due to a lactose intolerance. In that case, you can choose lactose-free versions of cow’s milk or plant-based alternatives made from soy, almond, oats, etc. 

In addition, research has demonstrated multiple health benefits of plant-based diets. If preferred, you can eliminate animal-based proteins in favor of plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy, etc.

Things to Keep in Mind

Please remember that although each group brings its own mix of nutrients, if you have an allergy or intolerance to a specific group, such as dairy, or prefer to avoid animal products; you can still build a healthy plate without those items.

The key is finding alternative sources of the nutrients those food groups provide.

For example, suppose you need to avoid dairy due to a lactose intolerance. In that case, you can choose lactose-free versions of cow’s milk or plant-based alternatives made from soy, almond, oats, etc. 

In addition, research has demonstrated multiple health benefits of plant-based diets. If preferred, you can eliminate animal-based proteins in favor of plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy, etc.

Conclusion

I know that this was a lot to take in. Just remember that if you forget a component or food group, this article will be here for you to review again. 

It takes thought and planning to ensure we consume the components of a balanced diet, including macronutrients, micronutrients, and adequate water.

Using tools like MyPlate can make this process easier. It can help us stay on the mindful nutrition path to better control prediabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Although MyPlate recommendations give us a good guideline, life can get in the way and throw us off track. Don’t be discouraged, though; that can happen to all of us at times.

When things don’t go as planned, don’t let guilt creep in. Guilt around eating is not helpful. Take a look at this article to learn more about guilt after eating.

If you have a meal you feel didn’t fit your nutrition goals, focus on improving the next meal. If most of your meals contain the components of a balanced diet, you will see results.

Over time, small changes and improvements will make a big difference in your nutrition and health. Consistency is what matters.

Take all this a step at a time and remember that even one step forward is still better than where you started.


Sources

[1] Protein | overview, composition & primary functions – video & lesson … (n.d.). https://study.com/academy/lesson/primary-functions-of-protein-in-the-body.html

[2] HoleshPu, J. E. (n.d.). Physiology, carbohydrates – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. PubMed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459280/

[3] U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Dietary fats explained. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryfats.html

[4] World Health Organization. (n.d.). Micronutrients. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/micronutrients

[5] EB;, T. K. (n.d.). Adult dehydration. National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32310416/

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, June 6). Water and healthier drinks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/water-and-healthier-drinks.html

[7] Learn how to eat healthy with myplate. MyPlate. (n.d.-b). https://www.myplate.gov/

[8] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Antioxidants. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/

[9] Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, April 25). Phytonutrients: Paint your plate with the colors of the rainbow. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/phytonutrients-paint-your-plate-with-the-colors-of-the-rainbow-2019042516501

[10]Liu, R.H. (2013). Health-promoting components of fruits and vegetables in the diet. Adv Nutr, 4(3), 384S-392S.

[11]Harvard Health Publishing. (2013, May 1). Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/extra-protein-is-a-decent-dietary-choice-but-dont-overdo-it-201305016145

[12] Aune, D., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L.T., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D.C., & Norat, T. (2016). Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ, 353.

[13] Rozenberg, S., Body, J.J., Bruyère, O., Bergmann, P., Brandi, M.L., Cooper, C., Devogelaer, J.P., Gielen, E., Goemaere, S., Kaufman, J.M., Rizzoli, R., & Reginster, J.Y. (2016). Effects of dairy products consumption on health: Benefits and beliefs–A commentary from the Belgian Bone Club and the European Society for Clinical and Economic Aspects of Osteoporosis, Osteoarthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases. Calcif Tissue Int, 98(1), 1-17.

[14] National Institute of General Medical Sciences. (2022). What do fats do in the body? Inside Life Science. https://nigms.nih.gov/education/Inside-Life-Science/Pages/What-Do-Fats-Do-in-the-Body.aspx+

[15] Current dietary guidelines. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials | Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials [16] Pennmedicine.org. (n.d.). https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2015/may/how-much-water-do-you-need-each-day

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