You’ve heard all the slogans for how to eat. “Eat the rainbow” (not to be confused with Skittles),“eat your greens,” and of course you get some folks pushing proteins, limiting carbs and/or dissing fats. So how do you know where to draw the lines and build a plate that’s right for you?
What is a Balanced Meal?
To get the most nutrients and a more satisfying meal, it’s important to think of the 3 main groups when you’re balancing your meals: carbohydrates, proteins and fats – these are our largest sources of food energy. But don’t forget about the other important players: vitamins, minerals and water. Each of these essentials must be incorporated in proportion to your needs and to each other in order to be deemed as a successfully balanced meal.
Carbohydrates are the relatively easy macronutrient to choose from, as they are found in many foods: whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, and more. These are really easy (actually too easy) to incorporate daily; however, carbs should account for 45-65 % of your daily intake. Whole grains and fiber-rich carbohydrates, many found in fruits and vegetables, are your best bets for getting the nutrients you need, and will help with staying full.
Protein is found in foods like eggs, meats, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, and tempeh. With a little creativity, you can find ways to enjoy protein throughout your day. Advised daily servings of protein are 10-35 %. If you’re aiming for weight loss goals, try to keep your protein intake on the higher end of that scale. Protein is important for building and repairing the muscles in your body, and lean proteins are a great way to meet your daily intake. Although a round of sirloin every night (to some people) may sound like a delicious and easy way to get your protein, but it’s not your best choice for equal distribution of fat, protein and calories in general. Lean proteins, such as grilled chicken breasts or certain types of fish are more calorie-responsible options.
Fat is the most calorie-dense of the macronutrients, so you don’t need as much of it as carbohydrates or protein. Good sources of fat include seeds, nuts, avocado, and healthy oils. Fats round out the percentages as 20-35 % of calorie intake. Limiting your fat intake is important, but eliminating fats is out of the question. Fats are a necessary part of your diet because they help fuel your body, make food more flavorful, provide satiety and help with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. Unsaturated fats, found in foods such as nuts, olive oils and avocado, are the best types of fats to use for cooking and adding to meals.
So, with all these percentages and macro-/micro-nutrient talk floating around, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty… How To Build Your Plate. You’re now aware of why the macronutrients are important, so learn how to make them feel important through your new healthy, balanced habits.
*It’s also helpful to note that sometimes food can be part of multiple macronutrient groups. For example, seeds and nuts qualify as a fat and a protein. Beans and legumes contain both carbohydrates and protein.
Aim to stuff protein and carbohydrates in your morning routine. Ingredients such as oatmeal with nuts, eggs with veggies, whole fruits and yogurt with granola, or a slice of Ezekiel bread and almond butter can get you feeling zippy on your way out the door for school or work. The nutrition in milk, eggs, plain yogurt and nut butters have the protein to ignite the muscles and the hearty components to keep you feeling full. Oatmeal, or a piece of sprouted grain toast with lots of fiber gives you the energy lift. Be careful, though. Plenty of ‘conveniently’ pre-packaged breakfast foods are stocked with sugar and extra filler ingredients, while skimping on the fiber, which is the star player in keeping you fuller longer and can delay (or even prohibit) that mid-day crash.
Fruits in the morning can jumpstart your vitamin count for the day. If you can fit some veggies in the morning, perhaps through a smoothie or fresh pressed juice, do that too! Spinach n’ veggie omelets are great! The fat included in the nuts added to your oatmeal, almond butter and possibly your milk will also add to the satiety and satisfaction of your meal.
Bring on the veggies! While lunch seems like the easiest time to grab a sandwich and head back to work, reconsider. A 3:1 ratio of carbs to proteins – and no veggies in sight – is not the smartest, nor most calorie-efficient way to spend your lunch hour. A beautiful salad could make an appearance here..but not your ordinary, limp-lettuce salad. Cover that plate with spinach, kale, or romaine lettuce with some lean grilled chicken, beans, tofu, almonds, or walnuts, peppers, broccoli florets, or carrots, etc…The options are endless! If that still doesn’t turn your crank, build yourself a meal that brings at least two servings of veggies (carbohydrates), a serving of protein, and a small amount of “good fat” to the table. Planning ahead will not only be necessary to keep you from swerving through the fast food line, but your stomach and productivity level will thank you later.
Your last chance to do things right! Round out the day with another bright showing of vegetables; the more servings, the more vitamins, minerals and fiber you’ll be enjoying. If veggies were already added earlier in the day, you won’t have to feel the need to cram them all in for dinner. Poultry, fish, meat, legumes/lentils/beans or even more nuts and seeds could be used to supplement the protein for this meal. Keeping the majority of your meats lean allows for more of other nutrients and tasty things. Carbohydrates are easily achieved here; select varieties of rice (brown, black, wild organic), sweet potatoes, quinoa are all great candidates. But as you’ve already seen, fiber is crucial! An extra serving of calcium will keep those bones and teeth nice and strong. The fats for this meal are generally easy to find. Poultry, meat and fish covered in chopped nuts as well as dressings/cooking oils can help level out the lipid density. Be smart and use good quality oils to keep your health in check; olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, etc.
What are some more examples of balanced meals?
• Oatmeal + Walnuts + Blueberries
• Egg Omelet + Veggies + Sprouted Grain Toast
• Sprouted Grain Toast + Almond Butter
• Salad + Chicken + Grapefruit Segments + Olive Oil
• Black Bean Soup + Salad + Black Rice
• Quinoa + Tomato + Black Beans + Avocado
• Grilled Chicken Breast + Broccoli + Sweet Potato
• Vegetable Lentil Soup + Brown Rice
• Huge Salad + Avocado + Very Lean Steak
• Apple + Almond Butter
• Fat-Free Greek Yogurt + Flax Seeds
• Carrots + Hummus
• Spinach + Fruit + Chia Seed Smoothie
Oh! And how do you know when to eat?
Ultimately, you want to become in tune to your body and your personal needs because everyone has different requirements. Pay attention to the true hunger signals your body gives you. For example:
– Are you hungry?
– Do you sense a headache coming, feel dizzy, tend to become irritable?
– Is your hunger satisfied by drinking a glass of water?
– What size meal leaves you hungry soon after finishing? .. What leaves you overly full?
It may take time, but by focusing on all of these hunger cues, you’ll begin to become more in tune to when you’re truly hungry because your body needs fuel. But also note that many times, your body may also just be dehydrated!
Some Take Home Points:
- Aim for fiber in your meals
- Load up on a variety of vegetables
- Control your portion sizes
- Balance each meal
- Stay hydrated with pure, fresh water