What Is a Balanced Diet?
A balanced diet is one that includes a variety of foods from all of the major food groups, in appropriate amounts. These food groups are: grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, meats and beans (proteins).
Why Should I Eat a Balanced Diet?
Eating a balanced diet will meet your vitamin, mineral, and other nutrient requirements. It will also promote your overall health and well-being, helping you to look and feel your best. When combined with regular physical activity, a balanced diet can help prevent conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and certain cancers.
How to Eat a Balanced Diet
In the United States food guide, MyPlate, each of the food groups is represented as a different color on a plate. Grains are represented by the color orange, vegetables by green, fruits by red, dairy by blue, and protein by purple. The size of each colored shape on the plate corresponds to the proportion of your food intake that should come from that group. The main things to keep in mind when viewing the MyPlate image and when preparing meals are:
- Enjoy food, but eat less.
- Half of your plate should be filled with vegetables or fruits.
- Half of the grains you consume should be whole grains.
- When consuming dairy, choose fat-free or low-fat (1%) options.
- Keep sodium levels in your diet low. Choose foods low in sodium.
- Drink water instead of sugary drinks.
Keeping these things in mind will help you follow a diet that is balanced and healthy. But if you are interested in learning more about the exact amounts of food you need to consume from each group, you can visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/. Exact amounts you need are determined by factors such as your age, sex, and activity level. The interactive tools available on the MyPlate website will allow you to create a personalized eating plan and track and analyze your diet.
A Closer Look at the Food Groups
There are two main types of grains: whole and refined. Whole grains include whole wheat products, whole rye, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, barley, bulgur, and popcorn. Refined grains include products made mostly from white flour (eg, most breads, crackers, pastas, tortillas), white rice, corn flakes, grits, and couscous. Whole grains are naturally high in nutrients and fiber. Most of your grains should be whole grains. When shopping, look for the word “whole” before the grain name on the list of ingredients. Ideally, it should be first on the list.
Vegetables can be divided into five subgroups: dark green, orange, dry beans and peas, starchy, and other. Each of these groups provides different nutritional values. Vegetables in the dark green and orange groups are rich in vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants. Vegetables in the dry beans and peas group provide considerable amounts of protein, iron, and zinc. They are also considered part of the “meats and beans” group. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and corn, contain more carbohydrate than other vegetables and are sometimes treated as part of the grains group.
When it comes to fruit, fresh, dried, frozen, or canned (without added sugar) are all excellent choices. Fruit juice is also good, but often packs in a lot of calories and does not contain all the added fiber of foods eaten in their whole form. Like vegetables, fruits are an important source of vitamins and antioxidants.
The milk group includes dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, and milk is also fortified with vitamin D, a vitamin that many of us would otherwise not get enough of. Individuals who choose not to eat dairy should be sure to include other calcium-rich or calcium-fortified foods in their diet (eg, calcium-fortified orange juice, green leafy vegetables).
The protein group includes poultry, fish, beef, eggs, nuts, beans, and legumes. These foods are our main source of protein, along with other key nutrients such as iron and zinc. To limit your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, choose lean meats and eat more fish and vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.
Other Foods and Beverages
Foods and beverages high in added sugar or solid fat (eg, cookies, cake, muffins, ice cream, potato chips, French fries, soda, certain juices, specialty coffee drinks) should be consumed in limited amounts. For the most part, these foods are low in nutrients and high in calories. Alcoholic beverages, if consumed, should be limited to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Balanced Diet Eating Guide
|Food Category||Daily Amount*||Key Suggestions|
|Grains||6 ounces (1 ounce = 1 slice bread, ¼ bagel, ½ cup cooked pasta or rice, 3 cups popcorn)|
|Vegetables||2.5 cups (1 cup = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 2 cups raw leafy vegetables)|
|Fruits||2 cups (1 cup = 1 cup fresh fruit, 1 cup fruit juice, ½ cup dried fruit)|
|Milk||3 cups (1 cup = 1 cup milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces natural cheese)|
|Meats and Beans||5.5 ounces (1 ounce = 1 ounce meat, fish, or poultry; ¼ cup cooked, dry beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon peanut butter; ½ ounce nuts)|
|Fats and Sweets||<265 calories|
*Based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Recommended amount varies depending on age, sex, and activity level. The MyPlate website provides individualized amounts based on these factors. For an individualized plan (especially if you are trying to lose weight or manage a chronic condition), see a registered dietitian.
Suggestions on Eating a Balanced Diet
A balanced diet will help you meet all your nutrient needs and stay healthy. Here are some final suggestions on how to eat a balanced diet:
- Fill your dinner plate with half veggies, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter lean protein.
- Choose whole grains over refined, processed grains whenever possible.
- Strive to eat a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables every day.
- Drink more water and limit low-nutrient or high calorie beverages (eg, soda, diet soda, juices, whole milk).
- Use herbs and spices in place of salt during cooking.
- Avoid eating trans fats and limit intake of animal fat.
- Choose foods prepared by steaming, grilling, broiling, baking, or poaching; limit fried foods.
- Do not get stuck in a rut, eat a variety of different foods from each group.
- Satisfy your sweet tooth with a “mini-portion” of what you are craving.
- Cook at home more often and eat out less. When eating out, ask for extra veggies, skip the sauces, and share large portions.
- Consider talking to a registered dietitian about creating a personalized eating plan.
American Dietetic Association
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
Canada’s Food Guide
Dietitians of Canada
ChooseMyPlate.gov. United States Department of Agriculture, ChooseMyPlate.gov website.Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/. Updated June 14, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2011.
Dietary guidelines for Americans. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/. Accessed December 20, 2009.
Steps to a healthier you. United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.mypyramid.gov/. Accessed December 20, 2009.
Last reviewed March 2011 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Last updated Updated: 6/20/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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