Balancing The Plate
As much as I like the word "Balance" because it encompasses my approach to pretty much all aspects of life, I think it gets thrown around a lot and is quickly be coming the new "Moderation" (ugh). Like any word, it needs to be defined to have a meaning. In life, balance to me means taking the good with the bad, accepting imperfection and approaching life holistically. Balance means being okay with taking one step backward in your journey forward, because at the end of the day you still made progress. Balance means getting a little bit of everything and not too much of one thing. It's about the big picture, but the beauty is in the details.
Nutrition-wise, it's a little less poetic. Balance doesn't mean eating burgers and pizza at every meal, but it does leave room for those things when life happens. It's about fueling your body with valuable nutrition for the majority of the time and not stressing out over having a not-so-nutritious meal on occasion, or a glass of wine with dinner every evening. Overall, having a balance of food is important because our bodies work best with a mix of nutrients and lots of variety. We don't just require one nutrient or super-doses of any one thing. Any time we eliminate entire food groups from our diet, or avoid certain foods, we run the risk of depriving our bodies of valuable nutrients and developing unhealthy relationships with food. Our body systems are complex and work best with a little bit of everything. As a result we FEEL the best when we fuel ourselves with a little bit of everything. And hello food is a lot more satisfying, and nutrition a lot less complicated, when we allow ourselves to eat everything.
There are many different dietary patterns that allow you to achieve balance - it's totally possible to be vegan, vegetarian, paleo, whole30, sugar-free, WHATEVER suits your fancy, and have a balanced diet. But, it isn't always very straightforward --even if everything on your plate seems to pass the "healthy" test. Just as important as it is to make sure you give your body a mix of nutrients every day, keeping each meal and snack balanced in nutrients is the most effective way to keep our bodies functioning efficiently. Of course, these recommendations are for most generally healthy people and those who are managing specific diseases like diabetes or healing from severe injury have different requirements. The ratios of the different food groups can be adjusted depending on specific needs, but overall, EVERYONE benefits from getting a balance with every bite. Let's start with the big 3 (macronutrients, that is).
Carbohydrates, carbs, CHO, however you like to call 'em, are the preferred energy source of muscles, the brain and our heart. (Did you know that the brain can ONLY use glucose, the breakdown product of carbohydrates, for energy?). It's recommended that roughly half of our calories come from carbohydrates every day. Realize that "carbs" don't only come from pasta, bread and rice -- fruits, vegetables and dairy products also contain carbohydrates and these bring along a wider variety of nutrients like vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and water for each gram of carb they provide. Whole grains like brown rice, wheat, barley, oats etc. offer a concentrated source of carbohydrates with an extra boost of protein and fat that refined carbs (think white flour) lack. Whole grains also retain a host of micronutrients that are lost in the refining process.
Protein, another macronutrient, is important to include at meals and snacks not only because it provides the building blocks for just about every structural and functional element in our bodies, but because it helps slow the digestive process so we stay satisfied longer and benefit from more stable energy levels. The reason we suffer from "sugar highs" and "sugar crashes" is because our bodies don't have a protein buffer to keep from burning through the easily available fuel right away. With a bit of protein in the mix, our cells get a slower, more steady stream of energy and our brains don't scream out in hunger just hours after we finished a meal. Protein is everywhere these days. And while part of me is grateful it's easier now to find traditionally carb-heavy options like oatmeal and bread with a boost of protein, it's really not necessary to aim for super-high protein intakes that are often recommended by those who don't really know what they are talking about. Generally (again, for those who aren't recovering from serious injury or illness), we should aim for .8-1.7 g of protein per KILOGRAM of our body weight. For Americans who aren't used to referring to their weight in kilos, this often gets mistranslated as .8-1.7 g per pound, which ends up being a considerable difference. To get your weight in kilograms, divide pounds by 2.2. Then multiply by .8 if you are on the smaller side and have a low activity level for the grams of protein you should generally aim to get each day. Multiply the number by 1.7 if you have more body mass and if you undergo intense exercise and need to rebuild broken down tissue every day. Shoot for somewhere in the middle if you fall somewhere in between. Protein really deserves a post all to itself, so I'm going to stop here to keep it simple.
Fat! Fat is fun. Fat is necessary. Fat is back as they say. Fats are the cherry on top of the carbohydrate and protein sundae, and they serve a major role in transporting and storing vitamins A, E, D and K. Without fat, we don't absorb those nutrients! Fats also slow the emptying of our stomach, so like protein, they help us feel satisfied with a smaller amount of food. Like anything, some is good but more is not always better. Fat is the most energy-dense nutrient, meaning each gram of fat provides the most amount of calories -- 9 calories to be exact (more than double that of carbs and protein). Overdoing it on fat often leads to overdoing it on calories because it's difficult for our brains to keep up with the high doses that come from fat-heavy foods, like fries and pizza, to tell us when enough is enough. Current recommendations for most healthy adults are to consume about 30% of calories per day from fat. For a long time, Americans have been afraid of incorporating fat into a healthy diet because it had been so often associated with gaining weight. And because we group a whole bunch of different types of fat together under one label, it can be confusing to distinguish between some fats that are worse for us than others. It is true that high intake of some fats has been associated with increased risk of chronic disease (KEY WORD: HIGH INTAKE). The "bad fats," as they are commonly termed, are the solid fats that come from animal products, and they seem to raise the risk of heart disease when they are consumed in excess. The research in this area is so difficult to tease apart because humans don't eat just fats -- usually the people who eat a lot of animal fats also eat a lot of refined carbohydrates, sweetened beverages, and not a whole lot of fruits and vegetables, which makes it hard to determine whether the fat itself is the problem (less likely) or the diet as a whole (more likely). When we took out fat from a lot of the products in the food supply in the 90's, we replaced it with sugar, which led to a whole lot of imbalance in the favor of refined carbohydrates and was notttttt such a great move for our overall health. One thing that is clear is trans fats should be avoided at all costs. Nothing good comes from these artificial fats, and they are slowly being removed from the food supply. Best to avoid commercial fats in packaged and refined products altogether, and look to incorporate more unsaturated fats found in plants and fish. Fat from dairy products and eggs seems to be relatively neutral and is probably fine if not consumed excessively.
What does this actually look like? How can you really get a balanced bite at every meal and snack? Here are a few of my favorite examples - all of which you can probably tell make use of simple cooking methods and affordable ingredients --> I am in grad school after all.
The concept of nutritional balance at meals and snacks is useful for anyone. The exact ratios of carbohydrates, to fats, to proteins can be individualized to your specific needs. I've tracked my intake for a while and found that I function best day-to-day with about 50% of my calories from carbohydrates, 35% from fat, and 15% from protein and try to get a little bit of each in with every eating opportunity.
Diets that promote very low or high intake of any one of these macronutrients are not balanced and because of this are usually not sustainable in the long-term.
Trumbo, Paula, et al. "Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102.11 (2002): 1621-1630.
Lagiou, P., Sandin, S., Lof, M., Trichopoulos, D., Adami, H.-O., & Weiderpass, E. (2012). Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Swedish women: prospective cohort study. Bmj, 344(jun26 3), e4026–e4026. http://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e4026
Chowdhury et al., (2011). Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk. Annals of Internal Medicine, 155(9), 139–141. http://doi.org/10.7326/M14-0538