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Do you find it challenging to maintain a balanced eating plan? It may help to think of nutritional balance not just in terms of the meal in front of you, but of your eating pattern over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. In the short term, balance means including all of the basic food groups in your day. In the longer term, it means including a variety of foods from within each group. That’s because each food group—and each food within a group—offers a slightly different nutrient package.
Below is an overview of the major food groups.
Vegetables deserve a star role in any balanced eating plan because they’re rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. Filling half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, like broccoli and greens, gives you satisfying volume without many calories.
When planning your plate, starchy vegetables—potatoes, corn, peas and winter squash—tend to function best as a substitute for rice, quinoa, or other grains. Avocados and olives provide healthy fat.
Fruits offer similar nutrition as vegetables, but in a naturally sweet package. The higher carbohydrate content (from natural sugar) in fruit makes it a lovely light dessert or snack, especially pre- or post-workout.
A BALANCING ACT: ONE-DAY MENU
The menu here includes a balance of nutrients from all of the food groups.
- Whole grain hot cereal with walnuts
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Green salad with peppers, beans, salmon, feta cheese, wheatberries
- Avocado with olive oil and vinegar
- Fresh fruit
- Baked chicken with rosemary, garlic, and Kalamata olives
- Roasted root vegetables
- Greens sautéed in olive oil with Parmesan cheese
- Fruit crisp
Protein gives you the building blocks to maintain lean muscle, which is important for both fitness and lifelong health. It also helps you manage hunger. Thus, it’s important to include a protein-rich food with every meal.
As with any food, quality counts. Some protein-rich foods have more health benefits than others. Salmon and other oily fish, for example, provide heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Pulses (beans and lentils) and minimally processed soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame offer phytonutrients and fiber. Nuts and seeds contain healthy fats. On the other hand, fatty or processed meats don’t support optimal health.
Whole grains come packaged with their natural fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Perhaps that’s why research shows that people who eat whole grains tend to live longer and have lower risk of chronic disease.
Not only have refined grains (such as white flour) been stripped of their fiber, but they’ve lost most of their original vitamins and minerals, too. Include whole grains at every meal—their flavor and texture are quite satisfying.
Dairy foods offer protein and an array of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, so aim for three servings a day. Some dairy foods (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, other cheeses) are better sources of protein than others (milk, regular yogurt). Note: While there is emerging evidence that full-fat yogurt and cheese may have health benefits, remember that cheese is calorie-dense.
—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN