What is a balanced diet?
A balanced diet gives your body the nutrients it needs to function correctly. To get the nutrition you need, most of your daily calories should come from:
- fresh fruits
- fresh vegetables
- whole grains
- lean proteins
The number of calories in food refers to the amount of energy stored in that food. Your body uses calories from food for walking, thinking, breathing, and other important functions.
The average person needs about 2,000 calories every day to maintain their weight, but the amount will depend on their age, sex, and physical activity level.
Males tend to need more calories than females, and people who exercise need more calories than people who don’t.
Current guidelines list the following calorie intakes for males and females of different ages:
The source of your daily calories is also important. Foods that provide mainly calories and very little nutrition are known as “empty calories.”
Examples of foods that provide empty calories include:
- cakes, cookies, and donuts
- processed meats
- energy drinks and sodas
- fruit drinks with added sugar
- ice cream
- chips and fries
However, it’s not only the type of food but the ingredients that make it nutritious.
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A homemade pizza with a wholemeal base and plenty of fresh veggies on top may be a healthy choice. In contrast, premade pizzas and other highly processed foods often contain empty calories.
To maintain good health, limit your consumption of empty calories and instead try to get your calories from foods that are rich in other nutrients.
Summary: Calories are a measure of energy that foods supply. The number of calories you need will depend on your sex, age, and activity level.
Why a balanced diet is important
A balanced diet supplies the nutrients your body needs to work effectively. Without balanced nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue, and low performance.
Children who don’t get enough healthy foods may face growth and developmental problems, poor academic performance, and frequent infections.
They can also develop unhealthy eating habits that may persist into adulthood.
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Without exercise, they’ll also have a higher risk of obesity and various diseases that make up metabolic syndromes, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 4 of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States are directly linked to diet.
- heart disease
- type 2 diabetes
Summary: Your body needs nutrients to stay healthy, and food supplies essential nutrients that stop us from getting sick.
What to eat for a balanced diet
A healthy, balanced diet will usually include the following nutrients:
- vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
- carbohydrates, including starches and fiber
- healthy fats
A balanced diet will include a variety of foods from the following groups:
- protein foods
Examples of protein foods include meat, eggs, fish, beans, nuts, and legumes.
People who follow a vegan diet will focus entirely on plant-based foods. They won’t eat meat, fish, or dairy, but their diet will include other items that provide similar nutrients.
Tofu and beans, for example, are plant-based sources of protein. Some people are intolerant of dairy but can still build a balanced diet by choosing a variety of nutrient-rich replacements.
Foods to avoid
Foods to avoid or limit on a healthy diet include:
- highly processed foods
- refined grains
- added sugar and salt
- red and processed meat
- trans fats
What’s healthy for one person may not be suitable for another.
Whole wheat flour can be a healthy ingredient for many people but isn’t suitable for those with gluten intolerance, for example.
Fruits are nutritious, they make a tasty snack or dessert, and they can satisfy a sweet tooth.
Local fruits that are in season are fresher and provide more nutrients than imported fruits.
Fruits are high in sugar, but this sugar is natural. Unlike candies and many sweet desserts, fruits also provide fiber and other nutrients. This means they’re less likely to cause a sugar spike and they’ll boost the body’s supply of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
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If you have diabetes, your doctor or dietitian can advise you on which fruits to choose, how much to eat, and when.
Vegetables are a key source of essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eat a variety of vegetables with different colors for a full range of nutrients.
Dark, leafy greens are an excellent source of many nutrients. They include:
Local, seasonal vegetables are often reasonable in price and easy to prepare. Use them in the following ways:
- as a side dish
- roasted in a tray with a splash of olive oil
- as the base in soups, stews, and pasta dishes
- as a salad
- in purées
- in juices and smoothies
Refined white flour is featured in many pieces of bread and baked goods, but it has limited nutritional value. This is because much of the goodness is in the hull of the grain, or outer shell, which manufacturers remove during processing.
Whole grain products include the entire grain, including the hull. They provide additional vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many people also find that whole grains add flavor and texture to a dish.
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Try switching from white bread, pasta, and rice to whole grain options.
Meats and beans are primary sources of protein, which is essential for wound healing and muscle maintenance and development, among other functions.
Healthy animal-based options include:
- red meats, such as beef and mutton
- poultry, such as chicken and turkey
- fish, including salmon, sardines, and other oily fish
Processed meats and red meats may increase the risk of cancer and other diseases, according to some research.
Some processed meats also contain a lot of added preservatives and salt. Fresh, unprocessed meat is the best option.
Nuts, beans, and soy products are good sources of protein, fiber, and other nutrients.
- sunflower seeds
Tofu, tempeh, and other soy-based products are excellent sources of protein and are healthy meat alternatives.
Dairy products provide essential nutrients, including:
- vitamin D
They also contain fat. If you’re seeking to limit your fat intake, reduced-fat options might be best. Your doctor can help you decide.
For those following a vegan diet, many dairy-free kinds of milk and other dairy alternatives are now available, made from:
- flax seed
- almonds and cashews
These are often fortified with calcium and other nutrients, making them excellent alternatives to dairy from cows. Some have added sugar, so read the label carefully when choosing.
Fats and oils
Fat is essential for energy and cell health, but too much fat can increase calories above what the body needs and may lead to weight gain.
In the past, guidelines have recommended avoiding saturated fats, due to concerns that they would raise cholesterol levels.
More recent research suggests that partially replacing with unsaturated fats lowers cardiovascular disease risk and that some saturated fat should remain in the diet — about 10 percent or less of calories.
Trans fats, however, should still be avoided.
Recommendations on fats can sometimes be hard to follow, but one scientist has proposed the following guideline:
- Fats to love: vegetable oils and fish oils
- Fats to limit: butter, cheese, and heavy cream
- Fats to lose: trans fats, used in many processed and premade foods, such as donuts
Most experts consider olive oil to be a healthy fat, and especially extra virgin olive oil, which is the least processed type.
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Deep-fried foods are often high in calories but low in nutritional value, so you should eat them sparingly.
Summary: A balanced diet contains foods from the following groups: fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and protein.
Putting it all together
A healthy diet will combine all the nutrients and foods groups mentioned above, but you need to balance them, too.
A handy way to remember how much of each food group to eat is the plate method:
- filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables
- filling just over one quarter with grains
- filling just under one quarter with protein foods
- adding dairy on the side (or a non-dairy replacement)
Summary: Aim for around half your food to come from fruits and vegetables, around one-quarter to be protein, and one-quarter whole grains and starches.
The bottom line
A varied and healthy diet is usually one that contains plenty of fresh, plant-based foods, and limits the intake of processed foods.
If you have questions about your diet or feel that you need to lose weight or change your eating habits, schedule an appointment with your doctor or a dietitian.
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They can suggest dietary changes that will help you get the nutrition you need while promoting your overall health.Last updated on January 24, 2022, and last reviewed by an expert on September 28, 2021.