We all hear the term "balanced diet" and probably wonder exactly what that means. A balanced diet is simply one that provides your body with the nutrients it needs for maintenance and function. Let's distinguish between nutrients and calories. It's usually very easy to get plenty of calories through the day by eating whatever we like and as much as we like. Getting the right nutrients, however, requires some thought and planning. With so many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis increasingly linked to poor nutrition, it's well worth the extra time to ensure you are eating foods that provide the nutrients you need. The typical American diet is too high in calories, sugar (including high fructose corn syrup), salt (sodium) and saturated and trans-fats. It is too low in fruits and vegetables (we need 5 to 7 servings a day), dietary fiber (we need 25 grams or more a day) and healthy fats such as monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.
Start with a healthy breakfast, even if you feel you do not have time in the morning to eat. If you can get up 10 minutes earlier you can do it. Include protein, carbohydrates and fiber in your breakfast. Old-fashioned oatmeal with a hard-boiled or scrambled egg is a great choice. Avoid instant or quick cooking oatmeal as it is often loaded with added sugar and much of the oats' nutritional value has been removed in the processing necessary to make it quick cooking. You can make old-fashioned oatmeal fast in your microwave; directions are on the oatmeal package. If you do not care for eggs have some yogurt for protein and the healthy pro-biotic bacteria found in live yogurt cultures. If none of the above appeals to you, put peanut butter or almond butter on a piece or two of whole wheat toast. Organic peanut butter has no added sugar and is usually only a little more expensive than the standard brands. Add a fresh apple, pear or your favorite fruit to your meal.
Include protein, carbohydrates and fiber in your lunch and dinner choices, and eat healthy snacks between meals. These snacks may include nuts and / or a high fiber fruit such as an apple or pear. Eat a salad with your meals and use as little dressing as possible. The salad-in-a-bag choices in the grocery store are easy to use. Bottled salad dressings often have trans-fats, added sugar and are high in sodium, none of which are good for us. A good, easy homemade salad dressing is 1 part extra virgin olive oil plus 1 part red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar. Combine the two ingredients in a shaker bottle or whisk them together. For one serving of dressing use 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of vinegar.
Many people feel so rushed and busy they frequently sacrifice good food choices for convenient ones. It does take more time to prepare healthy meals but the results on our overall health are worth it. Instead of buying frozen processed meals, cook extra food on the weekends and load up your freezer. Avoid fast food restaurants except as an occasional choice, and choose wisely from restaurant menus. Many restaurants now have fat and calorie information next to selected menu items, and special sections of the menu highlighting healthy choices.
One of the best things you can do to improve your nutrition is to read the food labels on the products you purchase. It takes some extra time in the grocery store initially, but once you decide which products have the best nutrition for the money, you do not need to spend so much time looking at labels. Watch out for the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in ingredients lists. These words indicate that trans-fats are in the product, although the nutritional label may say zero trans-fat if there is a small amount present. Also be aware of high fructose corn syrup, which is in a huge number of products. Some studies indicate it is metabolized by the liver different than ordinary table sugar and is not good for us. Check labels for sodium content. The sodium content is extremely high in many processed and prepared foods. Look at the sodium amount per serving and the percentage daily value (DV) on the label. Many canned soups and vegetables have over 30% DV of sodium in a single serving! Low sodium choices are available.