Get your Coach

What is a well-balanced diet?


You’re committed to cleaning up your diet, eating healthier, when suddenly you're struck – you have no idea what to eat. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In a world where we are flooded with endless diet options and information about what’s healthy or not, it’s no wonder that many people are left more confused than ever.

So, what the heck is a well-balanced diet? What should you eat? It’s time to set the record straight and dive right into the science of the optimal way to fuel your body.

What is a well-balanced diet?

The term “balance” in “well-balanced diet” isn’t just for show. It actually serves a purpose to describe a balance of the following three elements:

  • Energy (i.e., the calories you consume)
  • Macronutrients (i.e., Protein, Fat, Carbohydrates)
  • Micronutrients (i.e., Iron, Vitamins A & D, Zinc, Folate, etc.)

Energy balance

The first factor, energy, determines at the most basic level whether your body mass increases, decreases, or stays the same.

It also offers additional advantages: A temporary calorie deficit can enhance body composition, optimize the efficiency of the body's energy systems, and boost insulin sensitivity.

On the other hand, a well-measured and temporary energy surplus can help build muscle mass and, through this muscle mass, improve your metabolism and body composition.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to your goals and how many calories you are consuming. But there’s no denying that this “energy” component is vital in building a well-balanced diet and – more importantly, reaching your goals.

Macronutrient balance

The second “balance” factor in building our “well-balanced diet” is the balance of macronutrients, or the ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

Protein tends to get all the hype and is somewhat the star of the three macronutrients – though not without merit. This mighty macro plays a key role in building and maintaining muscle. But its superpowers don’t stop there, it’s also an important component of soft tissue (in joints, ligaments, and tendons) and even your immune system (some amino acids are, for example, part of antibodies used to fight infections).

Fats and carbohydrates round out our powerhouse trio. Both serve as the body's primary source of energy, but how they’re used depends on the type of activity you’re doing. For example, in lower-intensity activities that require less exertion, fat is considered the primary source of energy. On the flip side, at higher intensity levels, carbohydrates are mostly used.

Carbohydrates can be broken down even further into simple or complex carbs. And when it comes to living a healthier lifestyle, we’re all about that complexity. Complex carbs are considered to be the healthier energy source due to their lower impact on the body’s glucose levels. But remember, “balance” is the key theme here and simple carbohydrates are still a helpful energy source in the context of exercise, where the muscle takes up most of the released glucose.

All in all, when it comes to a well-balanced diet, it’s about striking that happy medium across all three macronutrients. Play around with your macros, make them work for you, and do what makes you feel and perform at your best.

Don’t skip the micronutrients

Lastly, micronutrients are the smallest but still mighty A.F. “building blocks” of the body. Not to be overshadowed by the other two factors, micronutrients are part of many of the body's most vital processes (such as your immune system or even cellular processes).

Additionally, many of them are essential, meaning they cannot be produced by the body and must be part of a healthy, balanced diet. A lack of essential micronutrients such as iron or vitamins can lead to many problems, such as fatigue and increased occurrence of infections.

What about food selection?

Now that we’ve tackled the science behind how your food choices are processed in the body, that leads us to the question of what you should be eating. While the options are truly endless, there is one key factor to trump them all: quality.

That’s right, it’s the quality of food that can make the biggest impact on how you feel, train, and how your body responds. Current research shows that a minimally processed diet provides the most benefits, while a diet high in highly processed foods is considered unhealthy.

This is in large part thanks to the difference in micronutrient content as well as the composition of carbohydrates and fats in these foods.

To provide an example, fast food is typically considered unhealthy due to the high amount of trans fats (a byproduct of food production that is considered harmful to the heart and other blood vessels) and the low number of micronutrients contained within it.

To put it simply, a good rule of thumb is this: the fewer ingredients, the better (less likely to be highly processed and stripped of its nutrients).

Why is this important?

Striking a balance of all three factors (energy balance, macro-, and micronutrients) while also honing in on the quality of your food can have life-changing ripple effects on your health and overall performance. And when you’ve hit that balance, it’s like striking gold.

Beyond feeling and performing better, a well-balanced diet provides your body with the energy and necessary building parts it needs to maintain vital processes without experiencing the negative effects of nutritional deficiencies or imbalances.

It will also improve your body composition and give your brain enough energy to have a clearer, sharper mind. Better yet, hitting that happy middle-ground will allow your body’s energy systems to perform at their best, giving you that extra pep in your step or that feel-good energy buzz to tackle any task that comes your way.

The right balance of micronutrients can also be a great defense and help prevent unwanted attacks on your body (i.e., many diseases of the cardiovascular and immune system). And anything that can keep you healthy and active long-term is definitely a win in our books.

How can I eat a balanced diet?

Here are three helpful tools to approach eating a well-balanced diet:

  • Calorie tracking: This method involves logging the energy that enters your body each day and balancing it with your daily caloric needs. Depending on your goals, the aim is to either stay in balance, or create a deficit or a surplus. It can involve a food diary or the use of calorie-tracking apps.
  • Macro tracking: Here, you focus more on the macronutrient balance of your diet. In general, you’ll focus on getting enough protein while balancing out fats and carbohydrates according to your needs and preferences. This, too, can be achieved via a food diary or using a tracking app on your phone.
  • Healthy plate: This approach is very visual and pragmatic, where you divide the plate you’re eating into the following sections:
    • 50% vegetables and fruits (great sources of micronutrients, carbs and fiber)
    • 25% whole grains (a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber)
    • 25% protein (prioritize high-quality sources such as poultry, fish, and legumes)

Keep in mind that it’s not an either/or situation, and you can combine all three methods into one approach or swap methods to make it work for you. The key here is consistency. Lean into the method that appeals to you and your lifestyle to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Start small, and make changes as you go - that’s how you progress!

Is there a best diet?

Everyone’s favorite question – which diet is best? To put it simply, the best diet is the one that works for you, the one you can stick to consistently. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some common approaches:

  • The Keto diet is a low-carb, high-fat approach meant for weight loss and to prevent diseases associated with carbohydrate overconsumption.
  • The Paleo diet centers around consuming foods of the Paleolithic area. The aim is to avoid problems associated with modern, highly processed foods.
  • Intermittent fasting is a method that limits food consumption to certain time windows to deliver the health benefits of caloric restriction and fasting.
  • The Mediterranean diet is inspired by the traditional foods of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (which are rich in plant-based foods and healthy fats). It’s linked to numerous health advantages and, statistically, an increased life expectancy.

These are just a few examples, and as with many things in the health and fitness world, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Part of the journey is discovering what diet works best for you and makes you feel and perform at your best.

Even though there are undeniably “best practices” that are important to follow, there are three important factors that will determine the success of your diet:

  1. It keeps you healthy and performing well (you want to feel your best)
  2. It seamlessly fits into your schedule and daily life (otherwise you won’t be able to do it)
  3. It needs to fit your preferences (it needs to taste good; otherwise you won’t stick to it!)

Let’s recap

A well-balanced diet is vital for optimal health and performing at your best both in fitness and in life. While there are best practices to follow and dietary methods that have proven themselves effective, it’s important to take the time to find out which diet works best for you.

At the end of the day, the best diet is the one that works best for you and your goals. The one you can stick to. After all, consistency is where it’s at.

Try Freeletics now