The Basics of a Healthy, Balanced Diet

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Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Eating a nutritious, balanced meal plan can provide a wide range of health benefits. It can increase your energy levels, reduce your risk of developing some diseases, promote better sleep, and improve performance at work or during exercise. A well-designed meal plan can also help you to achieve your weight goals. The 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines acknowledge the importance of eating a well balanced diet both in the short-term and throughout the lifespan.

How Many Calories Do You Need?

On average, an adult will need somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day to maintain their current weight. The number of calories you need depends on your natural size, muscle mass, activity level, age, and gender.

There are calorie tables and calculators that will help you estimate your daily calorie needs. But keep in mind these really are estimates—since you may have differences in your metabolism, you may need a few more or a few fewer calories than what the calculators show. Over time, you will know to adjust your overall calorie intake up or down by monitoring your weight.

Keep a Food Diary 

If you need to lose weight, gain weight, watch your fat, protein, or sodium intake, you'll have an easier time if you use a food diary. You can use a notebook, or you can use a web-based diet program, to keep track of your diet online.

Start by just writing down everything you eat for three or four days before you start a diet, so you can see how many calories you're currently consuming. Look at how many healthy foods you eat now and how many unhealthy foods you choose as well. Make sure to include at least one weekend day as many people eat differently on the weekends than they do during the rest of the week.

Once you understand your current eating style and patterns, it will be easier to identify which foods you need to consume more often and which types of foods you would benefit from eating less often.

Choose the Right Foods

Once you know how many calories you need, your next step is to choose foods that will offer lots of good nutrition for the calories you take in.

For example, at snack time you may decide to choose a cup of blueberries for 85 calories over a small glazed 100 calorie donut. Blueberries contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Although the blueberries only contain 15 less calories than the donut, they are more likely to make your feel full and provide an array of other important nutrients that you need to consume daily

Considering how food is prepared is another step to eating more healthfully. For example, consuming a piece of broiled, baked, or grilled salmon would be a better choice then consuming fish sticks because the salmon won't have as much sodium as the fish sticks, and can be prepared using other beneficial ingredients like lemon and herbs. This doesn't mean that you can never eat fish sticks. Rather, consider choosing them less often.

In general, foods will be lower in saturated fats, sodium, and sugar if they are not covered in creamy sauces, deep fried, heavily refined, or processed. Again it doesn't mean that you can never eat dessert or French fries. It simply suggests that it's better to consume whole foods more often. Some examples include:

  • Swap apple pie for a whole apple or apple slices with nut butter
  • Swap fried chicken for broiled steak or baked chicken or turkey
  • Swap red meat such as hamburgers for lean protein like chicken and fish a few times per week
  • Choose whole grain breads more often (at least 50 % of the time) and when you do choose refined grains make sure they are fortified.
  • Choose whole grain breakfast cereals over sugary cereals

Eating a healthy, balanced diet also means eating a variety of foods. Choose foods from each of the food groups to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients that you need.

If you're not sure of the nutritional content of any packaged food, be sure to read the nutrition facts food labels to understand the nutritional content for the number of calories per serving.

Dairy and Calcium Sources

Choose two or three servings from the dairy and calcium group each day. If you don’t like, or can't eat dairy products, look for deep green leafy vegetables or calcium-fortified orange juice and other foods. You can also choose calcium-fortified non-dairy milks and yogurt such as nut-based milks, and calcium-fortified tofu.

  • 1 cup of low- or non-fat milk
  • 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 cup of yogurt
  • 1/3 cup of shredded cheese
  • 1 cup cooked spinach
  • 1 cup cooked or fresh broccoli

Whole Grains and Cereals

The United States Department of Agriculture suggests that you eat from six to 11 servings of grains and cereals each day, and at least half of those servings should be from whole grains.

Whole grains and cereals are great ways to get enough fiber in your diet and to add beneficial vitamins and minerals.

  • 1 slice of whole-wheat bread
  • 1/2 cup brown rice
  • 1/2 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 cup of whole-grain cereal
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 4 or 5 whole-grain crackers
  • 2 cups air-popped popcorn

More Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide lots of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. You probably need 2 or 3 cups, or more, of vegetables per day, plus some fruit. Studies continue to show that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is important for overall health. Good fruit and vegetable serving choices include:

  • 1/2 cup of sweet corn
  • 1 piece of fresh fruit such as an apple, a pear or a peach
  • 1/2 cup fruit cocktail
  • 1/2 cup berries like strawberries or raspberries
  • 1/2 half cup of black beans or pinto beans
  • 1 small baked potato
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • 1 cup of broccoli

Healthy Protein Sources

It is possible to get your daily protein needs from plant sources, such as dried beans, nut, and seeds, and whole grains. However, many people like to eat meat, fish, and eggs, which are also good sources of protein. The amount of protein you will need will depend on a variety of factors, including age, activity level, etc. A typical serving of protein is about the the size of a deck of cards.

  • 3 ounces of cooked lean beefsteak (21g of protein)
  • 3 ounces of lean pork tenderloin (22g of protein)
  • 3 ounces of baked chicken breast (26g of protein)
  • 6 ounces of cooked oily ocean fish such as salmon (42g of protein)
  • 1/2 cup of dry beans such as pinto beans or navy beans (about 16g of protein depending on variety)
  • 1 ounce of nuts, about 25 almonds, 13 cashews or 9 walnuts (about 4g of protein depending on variety)

Healthy Fats and Oils

Olive and canola oil are good fats. So are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and soy.

Trace amounts of trans fats are found naturally in certain animal products. They are also found in certain packaged and processed foods such as pre-made desserts and pastries. Saturated fat is found in red meat, cured meats, and full fat cheeses.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of trans fat and saturated fat as these types of fats when eaten in excess can increase cholesterol and increase your risk of developing heart disease. You don’t need to add a lot of extra oil to your diet, just make healthy food and cooking choices, and you'll do just fine.

  • 1 ounce of nuts, about 25 almonds, 13 cashews or 9 walnuts (about 18g of fat depending on variety)
  • 3 ounces of cooked oily ocean fish such as salmon (5.4g of fat)
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil for cooking or mixed with vinegar for salad dressing (28g of fat)
  • 1 tablespoon of walnut oil for a salad (14g of fat)
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed (4.3g of fat)
  • Canola oil for cooking (14g per tablespoon)

Foods to Consume in Moderation

Unless you have certain health issues (speak to your doctor), you don't need to omit every single morsel of certain foods. Just limit your overall intake of foods high in sugar, fats, sodium, and calories.

Keep these foods as occasional treats:

  • Excess sugar: Cookies, cakes, candies, syrups, table sugar, sugary soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks
  • Excess trans and saturated fat: Chips, fried foods, cured meats, high fat red meat like ribs and steak, full fat cheese, gravies, cream sauces, desserts
  • Excess sodium: pre-packaged meals like frozen pizza, jarred sauces, canned soups, commercial salad dressing, pretzels, chips

Carbohydrate, Fat, and Protein Balance

A healthy diet should be made up of the correct ratios of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein you need to consume will vary depending on a variety of factors including, age, height, weight, activity levels. For more information, visit the 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Speaking of Portion Sizes

Many people suffer from portion distortion. It can be difficult to picture just how big a serving of any particular food is and if you don’t control your portion size, there's a good chance you'll eat too much.

Read labels and use a kitchen scale if you have trouble with portion sizes for packaged foods. Be cautious when you eat out in restaurants and coffee shops. The typical bagel in a coffee shop is equal to 5 servings of bread and one supersized meal at a fast-food restaurant might be equal to all of the calories you need for the whole day.

Whether you are at home or at a restaurant, use these tips for recognizing portion sizes of healthy foods at mealtimes:

  • 3 ounces of meat – One serving is about the size of a deck of cards.
  • 1 cup of pasta – One serving is about the size of a tightly closed fist.
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter – One serving is about the size of a ping-pong ball.
  • 2 cups of green leafy vegetables – One serving is about the size of two closed fists.
  • 2 ounces of cheese – One serving is about the size of 2 dominoes.
  • 1 cup of green vegetables – One serving is about the size of a tennis ball.

When you serve your meal on a plate, divide the plate into four quarters. One-quarter is for your serving of meat or protein. One-quarter is for one serving of starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, cereal, bread, rice, potatoes or corn. The half of the plate remaining should be filled with lower calorie vegetables, salad, or fruit.

Remember that butter, margarine, sauces, gravy, and cheesy toppings add calories to your plate, so use those sparingly. Better yet, use olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and spices to add flavor to your meal.

Aim to Avoid Skipping Meals

Whether you prefer three bigger meals per day or three smaller meals and a couple of snacks, make it a habit to eat regularly. Skipping meals might seem like a good weight loss technique, but it can backfire when you feel like you're starving later in the day. Skipping meals can sometimes lead to overeating later on. Especially if you have a history of an eating disorder, skipping meals is not recommended.

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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

  2. American Heart Association. Trans Fats. Updated Mar 23, 2017

  3. American Heart Association. Saturated Fat.