Nutrition experts always tell us to follow a “balanced” diet, so does that mean an even split between healthy food and junk?
Sorry to be a buzzkill, but… no.
Use the word “balance” in any other context and you’d probably think about a 50/50 split. But when it comes to nutrition, “balance” is more about getting a good spread of nutrients from a huge range of foods.
It all comes back to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which suggest we aim for a variety of “core” healthy food groups, including vegetables; fruits; wholegrains; lean animal or vegetarian protein, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, legumes; and dairy foods, such as cheese, milk and yoghurt.
If you do that, you’ll have enough fibre to keep your digestion running smoothly; protein to facilitate muscle growth and repair; and carbohydrates to give you energy and brain focus. You’ll also get a range of micronutrients, which are the small but potent nutrients that contribute to a healthy glow and bundles of energy.
“When you eat a lot more of the bright coloured vegetables and fruit, [you get] compounds called carotenoids [which] appear in all layers of our skin,” accredited practising dietitian Clare Collins, a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, tells Coach.
“When somebody is eating healthier, they truly are glowing because of the accumulation of carotenoids.”
On top of that, a variety of different foods will up your chances of getting a good amount of calcium, iron, zinc, folate, B vitamins, vitamin C, beta-carotene, fibre and phytonutrients.
“Phytonutrients do exactly like they sound – they fight off disease and keep you well from the inside out,” Collins says.
“If you think of your body like a car – if you put dodgy, cheap fuel in your car, it’s probably not going to run as well and it’s certainly not going to last as long, and that’s exactly the same in humans.
“When you put cheap, dodgy, and unfortunately tasty for many people food in your body, it just doesn’t hum very well. When you improve the quality of your food, eating less processed foods and more basic ones, your body will start to hum.”
Collins says there’s still a place for enjoying some food purely for pleasure, entertainment or enjoyment, but that research shows these foods ought to be limited to about 10 to 15 percent of our total energy intake in a day.
If you’re not counting calories, it can be difficult to measure, so Collins says a good rule of thumb is to think of processed, sugary, high fat foods as “rarely eaten” foods.
“We cave in way too often on junk foods,” she explains.
“The average Australian diet is made up of 33 percent junk – so one third of what we eat. If you want a balanced diet, the average Australian needs to halve the amount of junk they are eating right now.”
Collins suggests asking ourselves what our absolute favourite junk foods are, then brainstorming ways to reduce others that aren’t so important to us.
“You might say, ‘When I go to the club, I love my fish and chips meal’ so if you can’t live without changing that one, what can you change?” she asks.
“Maybe instead of ordering pizzas every Tuesday, you could make those at home, piling on the tomato paste and leftovers and have an easy salad using a bag of lettuce and a tub of cherry tomatoes.”
Ultimately, if you truly want a good balance of nutrition, Collins says you’ve got to plan for it.
“The average supermarket these days contains 10,000 to 15,000 food choices and the bigger choice is not tipped in favour of balance,” she says.
“You actually have to plan your meals ahead, otherwise all that advertising is going to catch you like a giant net in the forest and wrangle you in to purchase and eat more than you want.”