how to build a balanced meal

How to build a balanced meal

Everyone talks about balance but many people struggle to get it right. Balance is not about eating a salad the day after you binged on pizza, or ordering a diet soft drink alongside a burger with chips. Instead, you should be aiming for balance most of the time. Read on to find out how to build a balanced meal.

What is balance

In general terms, balance refers to achieving equivalent proportions of the different elements that compose a total. For example, a seesaw is balanced when the 2 people in either side have the same body mass (a.k.a. weight).

When talking about food from a culinary perspective, balance refers to the harmony between different flavours and qualities of the ingredients. For example, Samin Nosrat talks about salt, fat, acid and heat. Regarding health, Chinese medicine talks about the balance that the five basic tastes and cooling/heating properties of different foods.

In health and nutrition, though, balance does not necessarily mean equal quantities (volume or mass) of components. For example, equal volumes of ice cream and salad do not constitute a balanced meal. The same applies for equal amount by weight of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Barriers to achieving balance

Many people have that nagging feeling that their food intake is not nutritionally adequate. However, most of them will not take action due to a number of reasons, including:

  1. They don’t know what is a balanced meal
  2. They don’t know roughly how much and how often they are eating
  3. They find it hard to stick to the plan when they are eating with friends or family
  4. They can’t say no to free food and drinks at work
  5. They think snacks don’t count
  6. They don’t want to be rude when someone offers them food

How to build a balanced meal

This article aims to address barrier #1 above. For most people, a balanced plate should look like this:

  • 1/2 vegetables: this includes most vegetables except for the most starchy ones, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro and cassava
  • 1/4 starches: this include all grains and cereals (e.g. rice, pasta, bread) and starchy vegetables (see above)
  • 1/4 protein:
  • this include all meats, fish, eggs, cheese and legumes (beans and lentils)

generic balanced meal

This is the starting point, however the composition of your meals should change according to your needs, health state and preferences. Below are some common changes to the recommendations. Please don’t take them at face value but talk to your dietitian first!

Change If %
Less starch, more vegetables and/or protein You have metabolic issues, such as insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, type 1 or type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, PCOS, excess weight or body fat. low carb balanced meal
More starch and protein You are a highly active individual and/or an athlete participating in glycogen-demanding sports, such as endurance sports, Crossfit, etc. athlete balanced meal
No starch, more vegetables, same protein You need or choose to follow a very low carbohydrate diet keto balanced meal
More vegetables and/or starch, less protein You have a health condition that requires you to consume less protein, such as kidney failure low protein balanced meal

Balance is dynamic

We don’t have the same requirements throughout or lives. These will change with age, life stage (e.g. pregnancy, lactation), health status, activity levels, etc. Seasonality also makes a difference. By the same token, we don’t need the same amount of food and proportion of macronutrients every day of the week, nor every meal of the day. This is most evident for recreational and professional exercisers, who should adjust their daily nutrition according to their training and competition schedule.

Balance is cumulative

It is more important to achieve balance in a day as a whole as it is to strive for perfection in every single meal. By the same token, a mediocre day is ok if the average for your weekly meals were on point. Of course, is easier to achieve overall balance if most of your individual meals are balanced.

Quantities (i.e. calories) do matter

If all your meals look balanced based on the guidelines above but you are still struggling with extra weight, you might be eating too much. Talk to your dietitian to figure out your estimated target energy intake.

Bottom line and recommendations

Start with building your meals with 1/2 vegetables, 1/4 starches and 1/4 protein. Adjust according to your individual needs, making sure you are listening to your body (and your dietitian!).

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