What is a nutritionally balanced diet and how do you achieve it?

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  • Many of our ideas about a nutritionally balanced diet are skewed
  • The basics of good nutrition are simple
  • You should have a good, healthy relationship with nutritious food

Setting intentions for the new year has many of us creating goals around "eating healthy". However, few of us have a clear understanding of exactly what that means.

Many people have some idea of what healthy eating entails – what it is and what it is not, but unfortunately, most of what we know is drawn from misinformation spread by the weight-loss culture.

General thinking around what constitutes a healthy, balanced way of eating has been skewed with messages of restrictive eating to lose weight or "rules" that ignore the cultural, medical, or socio-economic factors that play a role in the food choices we make.

Variety is the key

The basics of good nutrition are simple.

Here are a few practical points to help you to choose foods more wisely, creating a nutritionally balanced eating pattern that allows you to cultivate an enjoyable relationship with food:

To maintain good health, the body requires 40 essential nutrients consumed in sufficient quantities.

While most foods supply more than one nutrient, there is no single food that provides all the required nutrients in the right quantities, which means that it is vital to include a variety of foods from all food groups in your daily diet. 

Portion distortion

Watching the quantities you eat at mealtimes, as well as appropriate snacking between meals, is important to ensure optimal blood sugar and consequent appetite control. Learn to listen to your body’s satiety cues and practice mindful eating so you do not eat more than you need. 

Get a good grasp of the variety of foods 

Getting a grasp on the different food groups is important as a healthy diet consists of a balanced intake from each of these groups.

These groups are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

1. The truth about carbs 

This group includes a variety of fresh colourful fruits and vegetables, grains, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Carbs are essential for optimal blood glucose and consequent appetite control.

Carbs should form part of every meal as they supply you with sustained energy throughout the day for optimal performance.

Carbs are not responsible for weight gain, as e.g. 80g (1/2 cup) of wild/brown rice contain 350kJ, compared to a chicken breast that provides approximately 660kJ.

It is very much the type and quantity of carbs you choose to consume daily that makes a difference.  

Choose unrefined, unprocessed carbs made from whole grains with a minimum sugar, fat and salt added.

These foods are wild brown rice, corn the cob, whole grain breakfast cereals, rolled oats, barley, quinoa, bulgur wheat, pearl wheat and heavy bread (fibre content of 9g/100g bread) and millet.

The fibre protects you against digestive disorders and the vitamins and minerals in rolled oats and legumes have been found to contribute to a reduction in cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

2. Power down the proteins

Although we need an adequate amount of protein for sustained growth and renewal processes in the body, most of us following a typical South African diet consume too much protein, especially red meat and chicken.

Some of us choose to eat leftovers from dinner for lunch, which should be your light meal of the day.

Your light meal should mainly be plant-based, consisting of, salads, vegetable soups, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruit and low-fat dairy.

Add a small portion of protein to all meals as it adds satiety to the plate.

Avoid all processed meats and limit your intake of red meat, chicken, and hard cheeses to approximately four servings a week.

Swap some of the meat and chicken for plant protein foods such as soya beans, low-fat dairy, all types of dry beans, lentils, chickpeas, white fish and two portions of sustainably sourced oily fish per week.

Fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, salmon are rich sources of omega-3 essential fatty acids which decrease inflammation and optimise your blood lipid profile.

Alternative plant-based sources of these fatty acids can be found in walnuts, hazelnuts, flax and pumpkin seeds.  

3. Favorite fats 

We need a good dose of healthy fats to promote essential metabolic processes in the body such as the production of hormones, transporting of fat-soluble vitamins and maintaining our cell membrane integrity to name only a few.

Saturated fats and trans fats are found in all take-away foods (e.g. deep-fried chips) and bakery items, cookies and salty crackers should be swapped for plant fats.  

Plant fats, except for coconut oil, are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated and sustain vital metabolic processes in the body.

The unsaturated fats and polyphenols found in olive oil protect us from diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and mental conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in walnuts, soybeans, rapeseeds and a variety of vegetable oils, while monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, olives, avocados, and sesame oil.                             

4. Fabulous vegetables and fruits

The five-a-day recommendation entails three portions of vegetables and two to three portions of fruit a day.

The phytonutrients that provide colour to the plants, and vitamins and minerals not only assist the liver enzymes to detoxify our bodies but help body cells to renew and defend themselves against harmful substances.


Did you know?

Refined sugars and foods made from refined flours have little to no nutritional value.

Sugary foods like sweets, biscuits and cakes cause a surge in energy followed by a slump.

This is caused by sudden fluctuations in your blood sugar levels, leading to mood swings, brain fog, tiredness, and poor concentration.

Refined sugar can be spotted on nutrition labels under terms such as sucrose, glucose, maltose, corn syrup, invert sugar, dextrose, and fructose. 

To conclude, prepare your foods in a healthy, delicious way, and do not forget to enjoy the eating experience.

READ | You are what you ate – as a child

READ | OPINION: When does unhealthy food consumption impact the overall healthfulness on one's diet

READ | Food systems need to change to promote healthy choices and combat obesity

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