If you’ve ever spent a little time reading my blog or talking with me about nutrition, you know that I am always preaching “balance.” I don’t think any foods are off limits (unless you are allergic or don’t tolerate them for whatever reason) nor do I promote any specific diet or way of eating, except for the concept of balance. Whether you are following a gluten-free or vegan or paleo diet, it is not going to be healthy or sustainable if it’s not balanced.
Eating balanced meals is a goal that everyone can strive for. I do want to start by saying that not EVERY meal or snack that you eat is going to be perfectly balanced, and that’s okay. There are times when you’ll be in a time-crunch or simply don’t have the resources to plan a balanced meal (while traveling, etc). Balanced meals are an important component of an overall healthy meal pattern, but that doesn’t mean that every meal is going to be perfect. All that matters is that you do the best you can with what you have!
Now that I’ve said the word balance about 13 times, let’s back up and talk about what balance even means. Here is the dictionary definition of balance:
Balance: an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
That’s right – balanced meals will enable you to remain upright and steady. AKA, they will keep you energized and feeling good. Why? Because eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of different foods will ensure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs to remain satisfied and functioning at an optimal level.
Now we can start digging a little bit deeper…what should a balanced meal consist of? There are many different ways to think about balanced meals, which is why this series is going to be split into a few different posts. Today’s focus is going to be on macronutrients. It’s important to understand what these are and where they come from before you can even start planning balanced meals.
Planning Balanced Meals: Macronutrients (Carbs, Fats, and Protein)
You may have heard of macronutrients or “macros” before. “Macros” have been a buzzword in the health/fitness world lately due to the IIFYM (if it fits your macros) craze. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, just do a quick Google search. This whole fad has completely baffled me and many other dietitians alike because macronutrients are nothing new. I’ve been thinking and learning about macronutrients since I was in dietitian school – I even had entire classes that were focused on them. Macronutrients are a major reason why you are you are living and breathing, and once again they are nothing new!
Let’s back up a bit. Macronutrients are nutrients that provide calories, or give us energy, including carbohydrates, protein, and fats. ALL foods are made up of all three of these in different ratios. Each macronutrient has a different function in the body and plays a role in your metabolism and overall health. It is important that your diet is balanced with all three macronutrients, as your body cannot function properly in their absence.
Ohhhhhh carbs – they can’t catch a break! Carbs are “killing us,” “making us sick,” and “causing chronic disease”…sound familiar? For some reason, carbs have been unfairly demonized by diet culture and “nutrition gurus” in recent years. Science shows that these outrageous claims are anything but true. In fact, carbohydrates serve a very, very important purpose in your body. Carbs are broken down into glucose in your blood, which provides energy to virtually every cell in your body. Your brain depends on glucose as its main source of energy, and it needs a constant supply of it because it cannot make glucose on its own. Ever felt difficulty concentrating or the dreaded “brain fog” while you are hungry? This is because your brain is lacking glucose and not functioning optimally for that reason.
There are many things that carbs do for your body other than provide energy. Did you know that if you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will start breaking down proteins from your muscles for energy (a process called gluconeogenesis)? Yes, this even happens when you are in active ketosis (from following a ketogenic diet or otherwise) because many parts of your body, especially your brain, NEED glucose…and they will figure out a way to get it even if you are not eating it. Not to mention that many sources of carbs are high in fiber, which is required for digestive health, reducing the risk of illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, and promoting fullness. Carbs ALSO make us feel good by increasing production of serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter!) in the body.
Where do I get carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are often associated with bread, pasta, cookies and cake. But they are actually found in a variety of different foods:
- Starchy: potatoes, corn, winter squash
- Non-starchy: broccoli, leafy greens, cauliflower, carrots (these are lower in carbs than starchy veggies but are still considered a source)
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Whole-Grains such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice
- Refined Grains like white rice and white bread
- Milk, yogurt, ice cream
- Soda, candy, cookies and other desserts
It is generally recommended to consume between 45 – 65% of your calories from carbs each day. This is not difficult to do, given the many different foods that contain carbs. A rule of thumb is to focus most of your carb intake on those nutrient-dense sources listed above, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole-grains. Some of the “less healthy” foods, like desserts, still serve a purpose (because they are delicious and comforting, duh) – but this is where balance comes into play. Maybe you don’t have a dessert with every single meal or even every single day. You can have dessert when it feels good for you, and focus on the carbs that are providing you the most bang-for-your-buck nutritionally the rest of the time.
Fats also have a history of being demonized, but not so much in recent years with the rise of the lovely keto and paleo diet trends. There are so many reasons why fat is important. First, for all of you ladies out there, we need a certain amount of body fat to maintain normal hormonal function (for menstruation, making babies, and so on). Just like carbohydrates, your brain NEEDS fat to function properly. In fact, your brain is made up of about 60% fat. Fat is a building block of your cell membranes and works to keep your blood sugar levels balanced. It helps your body absorb certain vitamins and regulates your body temperature. As you can see, fat does a lot for your body and is not something to be afraid of.
There are certain types of fats that are considered “essential,” such as omega-3s, which means you have to supply them for your body and it cannot produce them on its own. So nope, a fat-free diet is never going to cut it.
Where do I get fats?
- Animal products – meat, poultry, dairy foods (mostly consist of saturated fat)
- Coconut oil, palm oil (mostly consist of saturated fat)
- Fatty fish (mostly consist of unsaturated fats – especially omega-3s)
- Olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and other plant oils (unsaturated fats)
- Nuts and seeds (mostly consist of unsaturated fat)
- Avocados (unsaturated fat)
I am not going to go into detail about “good vs. bad fats,” or “omega-3 vs. omega-6” in this post—that’s a story for another day. However, your best bet is going to be to focusing your fat intake on Omega-3s, which have been shown to be hugely beneficial for lowering inflammation and promoting heart health. You can get omega-3s from fatty fish and some plant-based foods, such as flaxseed and chia seeds. It is worth mentioning, though, that plant-based omega-3s have to be converted to other fatty acids in the body. This is an inefficient process and you may not get all the omega-3s you need from these. If you do not eat fatty fish a couple times a week, you may want to consider a fish oil supplement to make sure you are getting enough.
Protein, protein, protein. Anyone who’s anyone has been talking about protein these days and how important it is for our overall health. This is the one macronutrient that hasn’t quite been targeted by diet culture, although I’m sure there are some no protein diet proponents out there somewhere. It is worth mentioning that there are some people who have a medical need to control their protein intake, such as those with kidney disease (the same goes for fats and carbs – some people do have to watch their intake of these for medical reasons). In their cases, they are likely working with a registered dietitian who provides medical nutrition therapy and helps them monitor their specific needs.
Your muscles need protein to maintain their strength, and it also plays a role in appetite regulation. We all need protein, yes. However, our population as a whole actually eats close to twice the amount of protein than we actually need! Our bodies can only digest and absorb a certain amount of protein at once (between 20 – 30 g). That 100 g protein shake blend the kid at GNC claimed you needed to recover from workouts? Yep, most of that protein is going to go to waste.
Where do I get protein?
- Animal sources: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy foods
- Plant sources: legumes, nuts/seeds, whole-grains, soyfoods (tofu, tempeh and the like)
Note about complete vs. incomplete proteins: Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein) that your body needs, while incomplete proteins are missing at least one essential amino acid. If your diet consists of mostly incomplete proteins, you’ll need to get in a variety of sources to ensure that you’re getting what you need. For example, whole-grains are missing the amino acid lysine while legumes are missing methionine. But as long as you consume them both within the same day, you’ll get all the amino acids that you need. Animal products are complete proteins, as are quinoa, buckwheat, and soyfoods.
How it All Comes Together
Now that I’ve given you the spiel on carbs, fats, and protein…how do these three macronutrients come together? What do they have to do with planning balanced meals? Well…a balanced meal, and really a balanced diet, contains all THREE of the macronutrients in amounts and ratios that make sense for you. Choose a food (or two) from each category at your meals and snacks and you’ll be well on your way to balance. You don’t have to get too complicated with it or worry about counting every gram. Just eat foods from each category in portions that make sense for your hunger level. Incorporating all of the macronutrients into your diet will #1) help you obtain the nutrients you need for overall health and #2) keep you full and satisfied between meals.
I am steering away from giving specific numbers and percentages in this post and that’s not because I am trying to confuse you or leaving out key information. I left those out because nutrition is HIGHLY individualized and your specific needs depend on many different lifestyle and genetic factors. Some people need more carbs, more fat, more protein, than others, and for that reason a blanket statement wouldn’t only not make sense, it would be irresponsible of me as a registered dietitian. If you are concerned about the exact amount of each macronutrient that you should be eating, then I recommend that you consult with a registered dietitian who can assess your needs in detail and provide you with individualized recommendations.
You might also be wondering – what about vitamins and minerals? You can technically still plan meals that are balanced on a macronutrient level, but are lacking in other areas nutritionally. The key here is to choose foods from each category that are most nutrient dense to stay on top of your overall nutrient intake. I’ll explain more about what this means in a future post, but here are a few examples:
- Carbs: fruits and vegetables are a more nutrient dense choices than white pasta.
- Fats: salmon is more nutrient dense choice than vegetable oil.
- Protein: a whole chicken breast is a more nutrient dense choice than processed deli meat (like bologna, for example)
Of course “less nutrient dense” foods still serve a purpose in your diet from time-to-time, but not ALL the time. It’s all about balance, remember?!
Examples of “Balanced Meals”
Egg omelet with mushrooms and bell peppers, sliced avocado and fruit on the side (here the egg is protein, mushrooms/bell peppers/fruit are carbs, and avocado is fat – plus a little fat from the egg!)
Salad made with greens, chopped raw vegetables, garbanzo beans, sliced apples, chicken, and olive oil/vinegar dressing (here the chicken and garbanzos provide protein, apples, garbanzos and veggies provide carbs, and olive oil provides fat)
Whole-grain pasta with tomato sauce, meatballs, and Parmesan cheese (here the meatballs provide protein, pasta and tomato sauce provide carbs, and the meatballs and cheese provide fats)
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, where I’ll go into more detail about what “nutrient dense” means and how to plan meals that are not only balanced with all three macronutrients, but also rich in vitamins and minerals!