As we often say, life is all about balance. And this completely resonates when talking about nutrition and having a balanced diet. But what exactly does this mean, and how can it be achieved?
It is all about macronutrients, how each benefits the body, and, therefore, how to combine these to create well-balanced plates at every meal.
Clinical Nutritionist Suzie Sawyer shares her nutrition tips and what a balanced plate of food looks like.
There are three key macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. In addition, fibre is often referred to as a macronutrient, such is its importance in the diet and overall health. Water is of course essential for life, and we should be drinking around 1.5 – 2 litres of water daily, depending on activity levels.
Protein fulfils a wide range of functions and it’s an integral part of our body’s make up. Protein forms much of the skeletal frame, primarily as collagen but also in muscle. Protein is also needed to produce immune cells, hormones, brain neurotransmitters, enzymes, and many biochemical reactions. It can also be used as an energy source. There are 20 amino acids that help form the thousands of different proteins in the body.
Essentially, protein is sourced from both animals and vegetables. Animal sources include meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, whilst vegetable sources from plants, include legumes, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. Many plant sources do not contain the full complement of amino acids; hence a wide range of foods need to be eaten, but it is possible to obtain sufficient protein from plants alone.
Such is protein’s importance to our health; we should eat it every day and ideally at every mealtime in some form or another.
Nothing in life is simple and the different types of fats can be confusing. We need some fat in the diet but ideally not too much saturated fat. Ideally the diet should contain around 20-30% fat with no more than 10% coming from the saturated kind found primarily in red meat and high fat dairy produce like cheese and butter. However, fat is essential for the body to utilise our fat-soluble vitamins – Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K. It is also essential for insulating the body and is used as an energy source.
We often see the word ‘polyunsaturated’ on foods. Care is needed with these because once heated polyunsaturated fats are turned into trans fats which can be damaging for the heart and arteries. Eating too much margarine is certainly not a good idea. However, essential omega-3 and 6 fats are super-healthy and must be eaten regularly in the diet. To this end, oily fish and nuts and seeds are your friends.
This macronutrient includes many foods such as fruits and vegetables as well as grains. These are used to produce starchy foods such as bread and pasta. It’s important to favour complex carbs found in whole grains over the refined variety which contain little fibre and nutrients. Refined grains are frequently used to produce white bread, pasta, cakes, and pastries. Non-refined carbohydrates are found in whole grain rice, wholemeal bread and pasta and other grain-based food such as buckwheat.
Carbohydrates provide the body’s preferred energy source, glucose, since the body can produce this easily from foods. Glucose is also loved by the brain, and it uses a whopping 30% of what goes into the body.
Fibre is a carbohydrate and is high in fruits, vegetables, and non-refined grains; another great reason for them featuring highly in the daily diet.
What does a balanced plate look like?
Much depends on individual lifestyle and activity levels. If you do a very physical job, you will need more carbohydrates. However, a balanced plate of food should contain all macronutrients in varying amounts.
As an example, a typical dinner plate might contain a medium-sized piece of wild salmon, a small amount of carbohydrate (say a clenched fist size) and two or three different portions of vegetables. This could be a few sprigs of broccoli, a handful of peas and a carrot, sliced and cooked. This plate therefore provides all macronutrients, including fibre, plus some of those important essential omega-3 fats.
When it comes to breakfast, eggs are a great option, providing you with protein and fat, with a slice of wholemeal toast. Add a side of mixed berries to provide additional healthy carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
It will not always be easy to get the perfect balance with every meal, but over the day, it can be achieved with a little planning. Importantly, enjoy the food on your plate; food is one of life’s biggest pleasures!
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