The Basics of a Healthy Balanced Diet

Graphic illustration of healthy natural foods
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Eating a healthy balanced diet can help you keep trim and give you lots of energy. You want to eat a diet with the right number of calories, lots of good foods, and a whole lot less of foods that are bad for you.

OK, that seems a little too simplistic. In reality, it takes a bit of work to eat a healthy balanced diet, so I'll walk you through the process. If you're unsure of what your diet says about you & your lifestyle, this quiz is here to help!

How Many Calories Do You Need?

On average, an adult will need somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 2,500 calories per day to maintain his or her current weight. The number of calories you need depends on your natural size, muscle mass, activity level, age, and gender. There are calorie tables and calculators that will help you estimate your daily calorie need. But keep in mind these really are estimates—since you may have differences in your metabolism, you may need a few more or a few less calories than what the calculators show. Over time, you will know to adjust your overall calorie intake up or down by monitoring your weight.

Keep a Food Diary 

If you need to lose weight, gain weight, watch your fat, protein, or sodium intake, you'll have an easier time if you use a food diary. You can use a notebook, or you can use a web-based diet program, to keep track of your diet online.

Start by just writing down everything you eat for 3 or 4 days before you start a diet so you can see how many calories you're currently consuming.

 Look at how many healthy foods you eat now and how many unhealthy foods you choose as well. 

Once you understand your current diet, you will learn which healthy foods you need to eat more of and which ones you need to eat less of.

Choose the Right Foods 

Once you know how many calories you need, your next step is to choose foods that will offer lots of good nutrition for the calories you take in.

For example, at snack time, you could choose a healthy food such as a cup of blueberries for about 85 calories or a small glazed doughnut for 100 calories. Although there is only 15 calories difference between the two, the blueberries make a much better choice for a healthy diet. The blueberries are packed with vitamins, antioxidants and very low in fat. The glazed doughnut has very little nutritional value and a lot of unhealthy fats and sugars for such a small treat.

Here's another example. Think about selecting fish for a meal—either 6 ounces of salmon or 5 fish sticks. Both the salmon and the fish sticks would offer roughly about the same number of calories, but the salmon would be a better choice because it's a great source of protein, B vitamins, and omega-3 essential fatty acids, while the fish sticks contain loads of unhealthy fats and sodium from the breading.

In general healthy foods are foods that are not covered in sauces, not baked into desserts, not deep-fried, heavily refined or processed.

By this I mean:

  • An apple is healthy; a piece of apple pie is not.
  • A lean piece of broiled steak is better than a greasy chicken-fried steak.
  • Turkey or chicken is lower in saturated fats than red meats.
  • Whole grain bread and cereals offer more fiber than white, refined bread and cereals.
  • Whole grain plain breakfast cereals are a better choice than sugar frosted breakfast cereals.

Eating a healthy balanced diet also means eating a variety of foods. Choose foods from each of the food groups to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients that you need. And pick healthy foods, not junk foods.

If you're not sure of the nutritional content of any packaged food, be sure to read the Nutrition Facts food labels to understand the nutritional content for the amount of calories per serving.

Dairy and Calcium Sources

Choose two or three servings from the dairy and calcium group each day. If you don’t like, or can't eat dairy products, look for deep green leafy vegetables or calcium-fortified orange juice and other foods. 

  • 1 cup of low- or non-fat milk
  • 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 cup of yogurt
  • 1/3 cup of shredded cheese
  • 1 cup cooked spinach
  • 1 cup cooked or fresh broccoli

Whole Grains and Cereals

The United States Department of Agriculture suggests that you eat from six to eleven servings of grains and cereals each day, and at least half of those servings should be from whole grains.

Whole grains and cereals are great ways to get enough fiber in your diet and to add beneficial vitamins and minerals.

  • 1 slice of whole wheat bread.
  • 1/2 cup brown rice.
  • 1/2 cup cooked quinoa.
  • 1 cup of whole grain cereal.
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal.
  • 4 or 5 whole grain crackers.
  • 2 cups air-popped popcorn

More Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide lots of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, and you probably need 2 or 3 cups, or more, of vegetables per day, plus some fruit. It's difficult to imagine being healthy without eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Good fruit and vegetable serving choices include:

  • 1/2 cup of sweet corn
  • 1 piece of fresh fruit such as an apple, a pear or a peach
  • 1/2 cup fruit cocktail
  • 1/2 cup berries like strawberries or raspberries
  • 1/2 half cup of black beans or pinto beans
  • 1 small baked potato
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • 1 cup of broccoli

Healthy Protein Sources 

You can easily get all the protein you need from plant sources such as dry beans and nuts, but most people prefer meat, fish and eggs as their main protein sources. You need 2 or 3 servings of protein each day. 

  • 3 ounces of cooked lean beefsteak.
  • 3 ounces of lean cooked pork chop.
  • One small baked chicken breast.
  • 6 ounces of cooked oily ocean fish such as salmon or tuna.
  • 1/2 cup of dry beans such as pinto beans or navy beans.
  • 1 ounce of nuts, about 25 almonds, 13 cashews or 9 walnuts.

Healthy Fats and Oils

Olive and canola oil are good fats. So are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and soy. 

Trans fats are bad and eating too much saturated fat—like the fat in red meat—isn't recommended. You don’t need to add a lot of extra oil to your diet, just make healthy food and cooking choices, and you'll do just fine. 

  • 1 ounce of nuts, about 25 almonds, 13 cashews or 9 walnuts
  • 3 ounces of cooked oily ocean fish such as salmon or tuna
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil for cooking or mixed with vinegar for salad dressing
  • 1 tablespoon of walnut oil for a salad
  • 1 teaspoon milled flax seeds
  • Canola oil for cooking
  • Olive oil for cooking

What Not to Eat

Unless you have certain health issues (speak to your doctor), you don't need to omit every single morsel of 'bad foods.' Just limit your overall intake of foods high in sugar, fats, sodium, and calories.

Keep these foods as occasional treats:

  • Excess sugar - desserts, candy, and sugary soft drinks
  • Excess fats - junk foods, fatty meats, fried foods
  • Excess calories - sugary foods, heavy sauces, and gravies
  • Excess sodium - heavily processed foods, prepackage meals, most canned soups, and vegetables

Carbohydrate, Fat, and Protein Balance

A healthy diet should be made up of the correct ratios of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The USDA suggests that you get about 50 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fats and 20 percent from protein.

If you eat all of the recommended servings of each food group and no more or no less, you should get your recommended amounts of nutrients without consuming too many calories. You can also use portion sizes and meal planning to make sure you get just the right amounts of everything.

Speaking of Portion Sizes

Many people suffer from portion distortion. It can be difficult to picture just how big a serving of any particular food is and if you don’t control your portion size, there's a good chance you'll eat too much.

Read labels and use a kitchen scale if you have trouble with portion sizes for packaged foods. Be cautious when you eat out in restaurants and coffee shops. The typical bagel in a coffee shop is equal to 5 servings of bread and one supersized meal at a fast food restaurant might be equal to all of the calories you need for the whole day.

Whether you are at home or at a restaurant, use these tips for recognizing portion sizes of healthy foods at meal times:

  • 3 ounces of meat – one serving is about the size of a deck of cards.
  • 1 cup of pasta – one serving is about the size of a tightly closed fist.
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter – one serving is about the size of a ping-pong ball.
  • 2 cups of green leafy vegetables – one serving is about the size of two closed fists.
  • 2 ounces of cheese – one serving is about the size of 2 dominoes.
  • 1 cup of green vegetables – one serving is about the size of a tennis ball.

When you serve your meal on a plate, divide the plate into four quarters. One-quarter is for your serving of meat or protein. One-quarter is for one serving of starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, cereal, bread, rice, potatoes or corn.The half of the plate remaining should be filled with lower calorie vegetables, salad or fruit.

Remember that butter, margarine, sauces, gravy, and cheesy toppings add calories to your plate, so use those sparingly. Better yet, use olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and spices to add flavor to your meal. 

Don't Skip Meals

Whether you prefer three bigger meals per day or 3 smaller meals and a couple of snacks, make it a habit to eat regularly. Skipping meals might seem like a good weight loss technique, but it can backfire when you feel like you're starving later in the day, causing you to wolf down even more calories than you need.


United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans."

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