A very common piece of nutrition advice around the world is to ‘eat a balanced diet.’ This seems like quite an easy idea today, where words like ‘carbohydrates’, ‘fibre’, ‘fructose’ and ‘omega-3 fatty acids’ are now making their way into everyday conversation. In recent decades, scientific research has rapidly expanded the understanding of human nutrition, but this may make a healthy diet seem much more complicated than it used to be. How do we make sure we get enough – but not too much – of the seemingly endless numbers of nutrients out there?
The good news is it’s actually pretty simple. A balanced meal is a snapshot of a diet that covers the three core food groups. As seen on this portion plate, the balance is a quarter proteins, a quarter carbohydrates and half vegetables1.
Quick refresher: nutrient basics
There are six types of nutrients essential for survival: proteins, carbohydrates, lipids (fats), vitamins, minerals and water. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are macronutrients, ‘macro-’ meaning we require them in large amounts. These provide the body with energy, measured in kilojoules or kilocalories2. Vitamins and minerals are classed as micronutrients because they are only required in small amounts. Water is also an essential macronutrient, as the volume produced by the body through metabolic processes falls far short of the amount we lose every day through perspiration, urine, faeces and respiration.
Three core food groups
Despite cultural variations, food is always grouped according to the main functions of its key nutrients. Keeping it simple, most foodstuffs are put to one of three uses: energy, growth and repair, or maintaining healthy metabolic function. Depending how specific we want to be, foodstuffs can be further categorised in up to eight groups, which is why national dietary guidelines around the world may vary regarding the foodstuffs used, but remain very similar regarding overall nutrient needs3.
One quarter carbohydrate food for energy
Carbohydrate-rich food includes rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, potatoes, bread, barley, oats and other cereals. These provide energy for the brain, muscles and other organs. Wholegrain carbohydrates are the preferred choice since they also provide fibre and vitamin B. Fibre is essential to keep your bowels working smoothly, and vitamin B allows the body to utilize the energy it received from carbohydrates. The more active we are, the more carbohydrates we require.