How to Create a Balanced Meal
A very common piece of nutrition advice is to ‘eat a balanced diet’. Although that might seem simple in theory, implementing this concept can be difficult especially when you are still in the early stages of your journey. I think it goes without saying that ‘balance’ implies you should eat more vegetables than candy, but implementing this on a daily basis can be confusing if you are not sure exactly how to do it. So allow me to teach you how to create a balanced meal in the simplest possible way.
Truth be told, there are many different ways you can approach this. Although there are some cookie-cutter ways to do this, once you get the hang of things you will discover that there are many different ways that you can slice this pie depending on what your specific health goals are. However, as with everything I do, I like to keep things as simple as possible, especially when you are getting started.
Before you even begin to look at how to create a balanced meal, you need to ensure you have a solid foundation and understanding of the essential building blocks of a balanced meal. The first piece of the puzzle is really really simple; focus on real food. In order to build a balanced meal you need to focus on using real whole food (i.e. 1 ingredient items) because you can’t build a balanced meal with processed foods, it just doesn’t work. Once you’ve got that out of the way, the next step is to dig a little deeper and focus on ensuring the types of whole foods you are choosing are well balanced. Enter macronutrients.
No Food Groups Required
Go back to the moment in grade school when you were taught about food groups; fruits and vegetables, grain products, milk and alternatives, and protein and alternatives. Go back to that exact moment and erase it from your brain. The reason I want you to do this is because your body does not recognize food groups. Nope, not at all. Your body can not tell if you ate a serving of grains or a serving of milk, the only thing your body actually recognizes is the nutrients found in the food that you eat. Whether you eat a carrot, a potato or an almond, all that your body recognizes is what macronutrients it contains; carbohydrates, protein or fat.
Think of it like this; food is made up of macronutrients, which are the body’s building blocks, and these building blocks contain micronutrients; essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. So, the food that you eat is merely a vehicle for your body to get the necessary macronutrients and micronutrients it requires, not food groups.
Although many people have heard the terms carbohydrates, protein and fat before, most people are unaware of how these various macronutrients actually affect our body, so allow me to share the coles notes.
If you think of the body like a car, macronutrients all play very important roles:
- Carbohydrates: Think of carbs as the gas for your gas tank. Carbohydrates are our bodies primary source of energy and help us get to where we need to go every day. Food sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils.
- Protein: Protein is what gives your car structure, or its framework, and helps it from rusting. In the body, protein is important for muscle mass, tissue formation and supports the immune system. Food sources of protein include meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, as well as plant-based sources of legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Fat: In the analogy of the car, fat takes care of pretty much everything else; it is the transmission, oil, nuts, bolts, windshield washer fluid, etc… Fat also serves as a source of fuel, so when your car runs out of carbs it can use fat for gasoline. In the body, fat is essential for a multitude of functions including nutrient absorption, brain function, hormone regulation, protecting organs and so much more. Food sources of fat include animal fats, oils, butter, nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives.
What is important to recognize is that all of these macronutrients are vital for the functioning of our car (i.e. health of our body), so ensuring we are eating whole food sources of them and in a balanced way will support of overall health. In fact, by eating these important macronutrients together at your meals, you can ensure that you are eating a balanced meal and a healthy diet.
Implementing the 3 for 3 Rule
If you look online, you will find all sorts of fancy formulas and mathematical equations to help you create a balanced meal, however, I like to use a little something I like to call the ‘3 for 3 Rule’ instead. The reason I like this rule is because it is really simple to understand and execute, so here it is:
At all 3 meals, eat all 3 macronutrients.
It’s that simple. In order to create a balanced meal all you are looking to do is incorporate all three macronutrients. This means that at breakfast, lunch and dinner, you should eat a source of carbohydrate, protein and fat. In fact, by eating them together these macronutrients actually help to balance your blood sugar, keep you fuller longer, limit cravings and avoid that hangry feeling later on in the day.
Think of it like ticking a box; at every meal look to see if there is a source of carbohydrates, protein and fat on your plate/bowl, and if there is, you are good to go. Here are some basic examples:
Potatoes (Carbohydrates) + Eggs (Protein) + Cheese (Fat)
Spinach (Carbohydrates) + Chicken (Protein) + Salad Dressing (Fat)
Rice (Carbohydrates) + Salmon (Protein) + Pesto (Fat)
When you are building meals it is important to remember that just because you need to include a source of carbohydrates at every meal does not mean you always need to eat a source of grains, bread or pasta! Remember, vegetables and fruits are also sources of carbohydrates and can help you tick the box to ensure you are following the 3 for 3 Rule. Plus, there are many foods that contain more than one macronutrient, so they can help to play ‘double duty’ when it comes time to building meals. For example, nuts and seeds are a source of fat but also contain some protein, and beans and lentils are a source of carbohydrate but also contain some protein as well. Therefore, in order to tick all three boxes (carbohydrates, protein and fat) does not mean that you need to eat three types of food at every meal, you just need to be able to identify all of the macronutrients on your plate. Let me give you some more examples:
Spinach (Carbohydrates) + Eggs (Protein + Fat)
Oatmeal (Carbohydrates) + Almond Butter (Protein + Fat)
Chickpea Salad (Carbohydrates + Protein) + Avocado (Fat)
Although this might seem a little confusing at first, I assure you it is not. The more you gain a better understanding of the different sources of carbohydrates, sources of protein and plant-based protein, and healthy fats and oils, the easier it will be for you to learn how to create balanced meals that fuel your body.