If your goals in the New Year include a more balanced diet, read this first.
Ask the typical American how to eat healthfully, and you’ll probably get a vague response like, “Oh, you know, it’s best to eat a balanced diet with everything in moderation.”
But “balanced” — according to the best nutrition science — is not at all synonymous with “everything in moderation.” This is where so many people, from the average layperson to the registered dietitian to the medical doctor, get it wrong.
Maybe you’ve caught yourself thinking, “I’ll have a salad for dinner to make up for the cheeseburger and fries I’m eating for lunch.” (Most of us can recall a time when we’ve made similar rationalizations.) In our society, this passes for “moderation,” yet, in this scenario, the burger and fries will contribute more than a third of total daily calories.
When this happens every now and then, it’s fair to say that is moderation, but based on standard American dietary patterns, many of us tend to do this multiple times a week.
True balance, then, means going heavy on health-boosting foods, which preferably constitute well over 90% of what we consume. Naturally, this entails reducing how much and how often we eat foods that are contributing to diet-related disease—and over 800,000 Americans’ deaths each year.
While it is certainly a good thing to moderate our consumption of foods that are known to contribute to diet-related disease, we, as a culture, have a very skewed sense of where moderation stops and overconsumption begins. Not being able to distinguish between what is healthy and unhealthy is another big problem for us. Thus, when each of us defines vague terms like “moderation” and “healthy” at our own discretion, we tend to do so very liberally.
That’s because we like to see all foods as being equal, when in reality there’s simply no equivalency between, say, Brussels sprouts and sausage. Green veggies and processed meats have drastically different effects on the body. We know this intuitively, and yet, we struggle to act on this knowledge.
This, in turn, is because our food environment is dominated by industries that have relentlessly marketed disease-promoting foods as “wholesome” and “good for us” and “protein-rich” and so on. In fact, co-opting the concept of “balance” is a primary strategy of the food industry.
For many of us, achieving true balance in our diets is no small feat. With many Americans having some combination of little time, little money, little know-how, or simply no energy to plan ahead, it is imperative that the institutions we rely on to feed us create environments conducive to truly balanced eating.
In achieving balance, greater weight must be given to foods rich in fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. These include legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts, and seeds.
At the same time, we as a society need to deemphasize foods that, when eaten regularly, lead to negative health outcomes. These include meat, high-fat dairy, eggs, fried foods, pastries, and ultra-processed snacks. Combined, these foods should comprise not much more than 5% of our total calories—and the lower, the better.
Of course, that’s not to say we can’t eat those foods at all or that institutional food service shouldn’t serve anything remotely indulgent. However, institutions have the opportunity to model true balance in their food environments for a population that has, for generations, been made to believe that “balance” equals “everything in moderation.”
To illustrate the concept in more tangibly, here’s an example of a full day’s menu of more balanced meals.
For breakfast: a steaming bowl of steel-cut oats with cinnamon, sliced banana and strawberry, chopped walnuts, and a drizzle of maple syrup; fortified unsweetened soy milk to drink.
For lunch: a slice of veggie pizza and a hearty salad composed of greens, mixed raw veggies, chickpeas, toasted pine nuts, and a lemony herbed vinaigrette; water to drink
For snacks throughout the day: spiced mixed nuts, hummus with mini pretzels, an apple
For dinner: potato and cauliflower masala served with brown rice and a dollop of plain yogurt; table grapes; water to drink
For dessert: an oatmeal-raisin cookie with a glass of fortified unsweetened soy milk
Note: Since this day’s menu did not include a whole-food iodine source, it would be best to cook with a little iodized salt, take a supplement, or incorporate sea vegetables regularly throughout the week
Balanced eating can be easy, enjoyable, and energizing. Far from leaving us sluggish and prone to illness, it helps power us through our busy days. And all it really takes is a new, more intentionally plant-rich way of structuring our menus, our food environments, and our pantries—and not falling prey to the moderation myth!
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
To request information about balancing your institution's menu and receive support (FREE!) one-on-one support from Maddy in doing so, please email Maddy directly or visit our Institutional Support page. From there, you can download a step-by-step guide and get started today!
Balanced is a nonprofit organization providing the tools, resources, and supports for everyday people to advocate for healthier menus in their community institutions. Please support Balanced's mission with a donation of any size today.