A common topic in nutrition is the concept of balanced meals. But what does that even mean and why is it so important?
If your first thought upon seeing the title of this post is “borrrrrrrrring,” I totally get it! And, something I tell my clients often, is that sound nutrition guidance is kind of boring. Because it’s relatively simple and it’s a lot of stuff we’ve heard before.
And yet, diet culture makes us think that true nutrition strategies are too simple to be helpful or are somehow not impactful. Instead we’re lured by outlandish claims, miracle cure-alls and quick fixes. Those do very little to support our nutrition, and in many cases, have a negative impact on our health.
So let’s give some of the very important nutrition basics the time they deserve shall we?
Because integrating the nutrition basics can help us feel nourished and satisfied, and less susceptible to diet & wellness culture nonsense! Eating balanced meals is one of the surest ways to cover many of your nutrition bases without having to think too much about it.
Balance is Not Dieting
First things first, I want to address something you might be wondering. If you’re afraid that “balance” is just another word for dieting or restricting, I’m here to clarify that is not what we’re talking about here.
Unfortunately diet culture has co-opted most of nutrition guidance. But, nutrition doesn’t have to be diet-y. It can be gentle and flexible and joyful.
Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about the true nutrition meaning of balance, not any sort of diet culture version, OK? OK!
Also, what I’m about to tell you is not a rule. It doesn’t mean you have to eat this way exactly all the time.
Of course if you have a specific health condition that requires modifying your food intake, please work with a registered dietitian for one-on-one, personalized guidance!
What is a “Balanced Meal?”
What I mean when I say balance, is a balance of types of foods. And a helpful way of thinking about this is in terms of food groups (which may be an antiquated term that makes your eyes roll, but it’s a helpful and practical way to think about building meals and snacks).
When thinking about food groups, you’d consider grains & starches, fruits & vegetables, protein foods, and fats.
Ideally a balanced meal contains all of these food groups.
When you think about typical meals in many cultures, this is quite common . It’s how we tend to “normally” eat. It’s nothing radical or extreme!
And yet, many people do not eat balanced meals. Whether it’s a fear of certain foods, confusion about nutrition, or lack of awareness or knowledge, many of us are actually not eating enough.
If you’re looking for more specifics on balanced meals, especially as it pertains to vegan meals, I dive deep into this in my online course and share my signature tool for building balanced meals!
Benefits of Balanced Meals
So what’s all this focus on balanced meals for? Does it really deserve it’s own blog post? Yes it does! And I’ll tell you a few reasons why.
The main benefit of eating balanced meals is it’s a simple way to get a variety of nutrients. Carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Using balanced meals as a key nutrition strategy prevents us from having to think about individual nutrients, weigh, measure or analyze our food intake. When we eat balanced meals, we’re taking care of a lot of our nutrition needs!
Another benefit of balanced meals is when we consume certain nutrients together, we absorb them better!
For example, we have to eat fat when we eat vitamins A, D, E and K in order to absorb those vitamins. We can also maximize iron absorption when we eat a source of vitamin C with the iron-containing food. You don’t actually have to think about this when you eat balanced meals, the synergy is just happening when you’re eating a variety of foods together!
Blood Sugar Management
Eating balanced meals also helps balance blood sugar. This is most important for folks with diabetes or PCOS.
Carbohydrates are wonderful, we need them, and a lot of them! And, eating carbohydrates with fiber, fat and protein helps prevent extreme spikes and dips in blood sugar.
Of course there are other key strategies for blood sugar management, including non-food strategies. This isn’t a deep dive on blood sugars. And this isn’t meant to scare you away from eating carbohydrates alone, but to teach you cool things about what happens when we eat a variety of foods together!
Last but certainly not least, one of the most important reasons to eat balanced meals is they tend to be more satisfying!
When we have a variety of colors, textures and flavors on the plate, we are more likely to feel adequately satisfied versus a small, monochromatic or homogenous meal.
Of course some folks may have barriers or sensitivities to eating a balanced meal; this is just general guidance. If you have ARFID, autism, selective eating or anything else that makes eating balanced meals challenging, please work with a dietitian!
How to Eat Balanced Meals without Getting Obsessive
Sometimes implementing nutrition strategies can be a slippery slope into disordered eating.
If that’s you, it’s important to work on your relationship with food before trying to do too much with nutrition. This is your sign to prioritize your healing in your one-on-one sessions with your dietitian and therapist!
And, balanced meals are really important for those in eating disorder recovery, too! If you have an eating disorder, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t think about nutrition. It just means that we need to be extra careful about making sure we’re coming to nutrition from a place of care and abundance, and not control and restriction.
Here are my tips for planning and building balanced meals in a way that has nothing to do with diet mentality!
Brainstorm Your Favorite Foods Across Food Groups
Write out your favorite foods! And then make sure that you’ve got foods from a variety of food groups (grains & starches, protein foods, fats, fruits & veggies).
Round Out Your Favorite Meals
Think of what you like to eat. Now consider “what could I add to this?” Is it light on the protein? Could it use a boost of color from some veggies? Maybe it’s low-carb and could use a starch. Is it missing a good source of fat?
Remember, we’re focusing on adding, not taking away!
Have Fun Trying New Things
It can be tough to veer from what’s familiar, but if you’re reading this post I’ll bet you’re curious about nutrition. So in the interest of nutrition, see what it’s like to explore some new foods, food combinations or recipes!
Notice How You Feel
When you start eating balanced meals consistently, you’ll likely notice some tangible benefits. Get curious about how your body responds. Are you more satisfied after meals? Do you feel fuller for longer? How is your energy and focus? What about your digestion?
My hope for you is that you find ways to plan and prepare balanced meals that are sustainable and enjoyable and that help you feel great!
Want to get my signature tool for building balanced vegan meals that are both nourishing and satisfying? Join the Anti-Diet Vegan Nutrition Online Course!
Need personalized support with nutrition and your relationship with food? We offer one-on-one nutrition counseling to folks in select areas.