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 in practice, especially when you are in the early stages of your nutrition journey. It goes without saying that “balance” implies you should eat more vegetables than candy but implementing this daily 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.
Go back to the moment in grade school when you were taught about food groups; fruits and vegetables, grain products, milk and alternatives, and proteins and alternatives. Go back to that exact moment and erase it from your brain. Why? Because your body does not recognize food groups. Your body cannot tell if you ate a serving of grains or a serving of milk, the only thing your body recognizes is the nutrients present 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, and/or fat.
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.
What is a balanced meal?
Put simply, a balanced meal is a meal that contains all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Macronutrients are the primary building blocks of the human diet, and they make up the caloric content of food. Each macronutrient plays an important role in the body and adequate amounts of each macronutrient helps optimize health, performance, and body composition.
Components of Balanced Meals
Although many people have heard the terms carbohydrates, protein, and fat, most people are unaware of how these macronutrients affect the body and where we can find them.
Protein: The building block of life and plays many key functions in the body. The amino acids that makeup protein function as structural components, such as skeletal muscle, enzymes, hormones, immune factors, transporters, acid-base regulators, and neurotransmitters.
Protein is primarily present in animal foods such as red meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, yogurt, and some other dairy product, and can also be found in smaller concentrations in soy products like tofu and tempeh, as well as beans and lentils.
Carbohydrates: The body’s primary source of energy. Carbohydrates also play key roles in digestion and gut health, glucose and insulin action, as well as cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism. Carbohydrates include starches, fibers, and sugars, and can be further classified into simple and complex carbohydrates. Dietary fiber is a particularly important form of complex carbohydrate that aids in digestion and adequate intake has been shown to help benefit improved glycemic control, blood pressure, and lipid profiles.
Carbohydrates are present in whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
Fats: Made up of smaller molecules, called fatty acids, which play several roles in the body including the metabolism of fat-soluble vitamins, cell membrane function, the maintenance of structural integrity of the brain and nervous system, and hormone synthesis. There are two primary types of dietary fat; saturated fat and unsaturated fat, both of which are essential to health.
Fats are found in animal foods, oils, butter, nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives.
The Balanced Meal Formula
To create a balanced meal, you must incorporate all three macronutrients. This means that at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you should aim to include a source of protein, carbohydrates (ideally starch and fiber), and fat in your meal.
Protein + Carbohydrates + Fat
Benefits of Balanced Meals
By building balanced meals, with all three macronutrients, you are better able to create a balanced diet overall and more easily support your health and your goals. By building balanced meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner as frequently as possible, you will:
- Consume a more optimal balance of macronutrients.
By regularly consuming balanced meals you can help to ensure you are consuming an adequate and balanced amount of macronutrients to support an overall more well-balanced diet. The current dietary guidelines recommend that individuals consume 45-65% of total daily calories from carbohydrates, 20-35% from fat, and 10-35% from protein (1). By creating a balanced meal at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you can help to ensure you are consuming a more optimal balance of macronutrients.
- Balance energy, blood sugar, and hormones.
Creating balanced meals will not only help to ensure that you are consuming adequate calories to fuel your body from one meal to the next but consuming balanced meals with protein and fiber can help to balance blood sugar levels. A meal with complex and fiber-rich carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats, will take longer to digest than one filled with refined carbohydrates and no protein, which means a more moderate rise in blood sugar and reduced fatigue and cravings.
- Increase satiety levels, feelings of fullness, and food satisfaction.
Because protein is the most satiating macronutrient and decreases gastric emptying and/or slows energy and nutrient absorption, consuming balanced meals complete with protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and fats can help to increase feelings of satiety and fullness (2). Moreover, by including all macronutrients in your meals, and not avoiding or vilifying sources of carbs or fat, you are more likely to find satisfaction after eating.
- Support adequate fiber and micronutrient intake.
Regularly consuming balanced meals that include fiber can help to ensure that you are reaching the recommended daily fiber intake. Current evidence collectively supports a minimum fiber intake of, at least, 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, or 14 grams for every 1,000 calories consumed per day (3). Moreover, regular consumption of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, especially a wide variety of them, can also help to increase your intake of essential vitamins and minerals.
- Optimize athletic performance and support body composition goals.
The content of meals can help support training goals and help optimize body composition. While the exact macronutrient requirements for athletes will vary based on their sport and goals, both carbohydrate and protein consumption and timing play an important role in muscle maintenance, overall performance, and optimal recovery. Moreover, consuming balanced meals with adequate protein and fiber has been shown to support weight loss and body competition goals, such as muscle building, especially when paired with resistance training (4).
What does a balanced meal look like?
Using the balanced meal formula, you can select, at least, one food from every section of the formula to build a plate that is complete with protein, carbs, fiber, and fat. Here’s a visual example.
Balanced Meal Plate Examples
Think of it like ticking a box; at every meal ensure that you are including a source of carbohydrates, protein, and fat on your plate or in your bowl. Here are some simple examples that execute to protein + carb + fiber + fat formula:
- Eggs + Toast + Spinach + Cheddar Cheese
- Milk + Oats + Berries + Almonds
- Deli Meat + Crackers + Carrots + Hummus
- Tuna + Pita + Lettuce + Mayonnaise
- Chicken + Pasta + Broccoli + Pesto
- Salmon + Potatoes + Asparagus + Olive Oil
- Shrimp + White Rice+ Tomatoes + Avocado
- Turkey + Quinoa + Kale + Avocado Oil
- Steak + Corn + Lettuce + Dressing
- Tofu + Brown Rice + Cabbage + Sesame Oil
- Chickpeas + Couscous + Cucumber + Feta Cheese
- Lentils + Barley + Green Beans + Butter
Please note that you can include more than one source of protein, carbs, fiber, and fat in your meal! For example, you can include more than one vegetable in your meal (i.e., a salad with lettuce, carrots, and cucumber), or more than one source of protein (i.e., add chicken and black beans to your salad) or more than one source of fat (i.e., avocado and pumpkin seeds to your salad), the balanced meal formula is simply designed to help ensure that each macronutrient is included.
Other Things to Consider
Prioritize whole foods. When making a balanced meal, it is best to prioritize whole foods as much as possible. Building meals with red meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, eggs, dairy, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables is a simple way to ensure that you are prioritizing your macronutrient and micronutrient intake at the same time.
Include color and flavor. Remember, balanced meals don’t need to be bland or boring! Make meals more visually appealing by including a wide variety of colors and textures, and feel free to add as many herbs and spices to make your meals as flavorful as possible.
Aim for all 3 meals. When it comes to creating a balanced meal, a simple yet helpful guideline to keep in mind is the “3 for 3” formula; at all three meals, eat all three macronutrients. Be it breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or meals 1, 2, and 3, aim to include all three macronutrients.
Consider portion sizes. When building balanced meals, it is also important to consider the portion sizes of protein, starchy carbohydrates, fiber, and fat you are adding to your meal, especially if you have a goal of weight loss or changing body composition. While calorie or macro counting is one approach, the hand-portion size method is a simple yet effective tool to ensure that you are consuming a portion size that more optimally supports your individual needs.
Don’t forget about water. While not included as a component of the balanced meal formula, remember that water is also considered a macronutrient as it is required in large amounts by the body. The current dietary guidelines recommend consuming 0.5 to 1.0 ounces of water per pound of body weight, which should be consumed throughout the day and/or along with meals.
Listen to your body. It’s important to remember that your body is the best coach you will ever have and you must learn to listen to it, interpret what it’s saying, and give it what it needs. In addition to prioritizing balanced meals, it’s important that you honor your natural hunger and fullness cues by listening to your body or using a tool such as the hunger-fullness scale. Moreover, keep in mind that your favorite foods and meals, even pasta and pizza, can be included in the balanced meal formula.
Aim for consistency, not perfection. Please remember that the balanced meal formula is a guideline, not a rule. The objective is to implement this guideline at as many meals as possible, as frequently as possible, NOT to implement it at every single meal for the rest of your life. Some meals and days will be easier than others, that’s real life. As with all aspects of nutrition, the objective is consistency, not perfection.
The Bottom Line
By including a portion of protein, carbohydrate, and fat in your meal you can create a balanced meal with a more optimal macronutrient composition. Consuming meals with all macronutrients can help to support energy levels, balance blood sugar, increase satiety levels and feelings of fullness, as well as optimize athletic performance, and support body composition goals.