Everywhere you look you’re bombarded with information about what you should and shouldn’t eat. But structuring a basic daily diet that meets your body’s needs shouldn’t have to be an over-complicated process. The key is to acquaint yourself with a basic understanding of dietary requirements — and from there, it’s up to you as to how you adapt them to your own personal preferences.
Food can be categorized into three main macronutrient groups: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Together these form the building blocks of a balanced diet, so it’s generally recommended that you aim to eat a certain portion of each per day.
Protein is essential for the growth, maintenance, and repair of body tissue. It’s also used by the body to create enzymes and hormones, and is a key component in all our body’s cells — and this is why it’s important to eat enough protein.
The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (more if you’re highly active or looking to build muscle). Another way to measure this is to aim to get 10-35 percent of your calories from quality sources of protein.
You’ve probably heard the Mediterranean diet being praised as the secret to a long, healthy life. So what is it that the Italians are doing right? Drizzling their salads and pasta with olive oil, for one thing.
The unsaturated fats found in foods like nuts, seeds, avocado, fish and olive oil are good for cholesterol levels and are a very important part of a healthy diet. Saturated fats found in foods like meat, eggs and dairy should be eaten in low to moderate amounts. The type of fats that should be avoided are trans-fats, which are often found in margarine, deep-fried food and other highly-processed products.
Fat should make up about 20-35 percent of your daily calorie intake, though you should keep saturated fats to less than 10 percent and aim for mostly unsaturated fats.
While particular diets vilify carbohydrates, they can be thought of as a key component to a healthy, balanced diet. After all, we need energy, and it’s carbohydrates that provide fuel for our brains and bodies.
The important thing is to eat mostly complex, rather than simple, carbohydrates. Foods that contain fiber, starch and sugars are complex, while simple carbs are mostly just sugars. Sources of complex carbs include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and beans. Complex carbs do not spike blood sugar levels like simple carbs do, and therefore keep you energised for longer.
It’s generally recommended that 45-65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates.
The balanced meal
All that sounds simple enough, but you might be wondering how this balance of macronutrients might look when sitting in front of you on a plate. As a rough rule of thumb, you might imagine a plate that’s half low-starch vegetables, a quarter protein, and a quarter complex carbohydrates. Depending on the dish, there’s a good chance some healthy fats are already included — for example, perhaps your protein source is a piece of salmon — but otherwise you can add some avocado, a sprinkle of nuts, or some olive oil to round it out.
While every meal you eat needn’t look exactly like this, it’s a useful way of getting to understand the recommended balance of macronutrients on a day-to-day level.
Managing dietary preferences
There are many factors that might influence your own particular dietary needs, including your age, weight, gender and physical activity level. However, the above recommended daily guidelines are a great starting point for understanding what a balanced, healthy diet should consist of.
Meanwhile, if you choose to follow a diet that’s low in one of the macronutrient groups — for example, a diet that’s low carb or low fat — you will have to shift the balance by eating more of another group. The most important thing to be aware of, then, is to get the right quality of macronutrients.
If you cut out carbs, for example, you’ll want to ensure you’re eating a good balance of high-quality protein and healthy unsaturated fats. If you lower your fat intake, be sure to get plenty of complex carbohydrates, and so on.
If your dietary preference is vegetarian or vegan, you will need a little extra vigilance to ensure you meet all your dietary needs. Lacto-Ovo vegetarians might find dairy products and eggs a useful source of protein, while vegans should be sure to include other protein sources like beans, lentils, tofu, quinoa, nuts, seeds, and protein-rich vegetables. Vegans should also factor in B12-fortified foods or supplements, as B12 vitamins are not found naturally in plant sources.
So, now when you choose a meal plan, consider how your basic dietary needs can be best met within the ambit of your personal preferences.