Balanced Diet Chart For Indians – When, How & What To Eat.
“Eat a balanced diet…”
… says the Doctor/Dietitian.
You are then given a “balanced diet chart” with our Indian menus.
You stick the chart on your refrigerator or in your bedroom.
Six months later, you do not even remember the said balanced diet chart!
Well, whatever your answer, this blog post today will free you from ever needing another “diet plan”
There are a lot of diets around and we hesitated to add to this already saturated market, but the need for this blog post becomes more and more apparent each year…
… when we find ourselves inundated with clients who haven’t managed to succeed with their latest dieting attempt.
Many of you have tried every diet out there and most of you still weigh more than you did when you embarked on your weight loss journey.
If you are this person, then this post is for you.
It’s also for our fellow Indians who have a tricky relationship with food. People who comfort eat and hate that they do it, and people who dread Diwali or other festivals because they can’t resist the non-stop nibbles.
It is for everyone who wants to stop thinking about food all day.
This plan is especially for people who want to lose weight and be healthy but don’t have the time or inclination to follow a complex diet dictated by a guru, but instead want a few basic guidelines to help them make better choices, with better habits.
Although this post is a kind of diet guide, it isn’t solely to help people to lose weight. This is for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of basic nutrition for everyday life.
Of course, there are limitations to this page (you can’t teach everything about nutrition on one page!).
There will always be more you can learn about food and nutrition, but this page provides an overview of the most relevant bits for most our Indian brothers and sisters.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet – An Indian Perspective
We would argue that the pertinent word in “healthy balanced diet” is balanced. If your diet isn’t balanced, it’s pretty hard for it to be healthy.
However, we have seen our clients who have managed to achieve a balanced diet from foods traditionally thought of as unhealthy, but really what we want is both.
So what is this elusive healthy “balanced diet chart”? And why is it of extreme importance here, in India?
Well, these days we’re constantly bombarded with headlines claiming breakthrough research into the latest health trends. The all-hailed “superfoods” that promise to provide the elixir of health – if you include them in your diet you will lose weight and live longer.
Some things we’ve been asked to comment about recently include the health “cheese” that contained no fat (and consequently a whole array of ingredients that are not quite food), the benefits of eating avocados, and a “cleanse” that involved eating nothing but juices.
How do you know what to believe?
By its very nature, science is always making new discoveries, and thank goodness – otherwise we’d all still be smoking in order to help our chesty cough.
But you need to have a degree in nutrition in order to decode the food related headlines!
There are always some caveats, though.
What is healthy depends an awful lot on your health perspective and priorities, and this is where you will often find contradictions in the advice.
Meaning, the importance of a balanced diet will be clear only when we know the GOAL of the dieter.
- If you are trying to gain weight, then full-fat dairy products are brilliant.
- If you are trying to lower your cholesterol, not so much.
- White bread is a better source of iron than wholemeal bread because the wholegrain part of the flour found in wholemeal bread interferes with iron absorption. So if you are anaemic, white bread is a better choice than wholemeal bread.
- If you are trying to lose weight and want to feel fuller for longer, then wholemeal is a better choice.
And that’s why it’s so important to think about the context of food and nutrients rather than just blanket labeling them good or bad.
And that is why you should understand the importance of a balanced diet and the constituents of a balanced diet.
Some foods are associated with a greater risk of ill health than others though, so what do you do about them? Red meat has been linked with an increased risk of colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancer. but it’s also a great source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc etc.
You can definitely get by without red meat but (unless you are vegetarian or vegan) there is no need to exclude it all together.
By the same reasoning it is perfectly acceptable to eat ice cream as part of a healthy balanced diet. Although ice cream is a source of sugar and saturated fat, it is also a source of energy, protein and calcium. If eaten in moderation these foods are very unlikely to do you harm. The keyword here is “moderation”.
Even processed pork, one of the most denounced foods, was recently shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, but to get that increased risk you had to eat more than 50gms every day. The odd slice of ham in a sandwich is not going to increase your risk by much at all.
Having said all this, the choices you make do have an effect on your health. It does have an impact on whether you lose weight, keep cholesterol down, keep blood pressure within safe limits, develop type 2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases.
A healthy, balanced diet definition can be as follows or should consist of three elements:
WHAT You Eat
This is the different food groups, which provide all the nutrients necessary for health.
WHEN You Eat
This means when, at what time of the day, you have your meals.
HOW MUCH Your Eat
This is your portion sizes from each food group.
Without these three elements it’s pretty difficult to have a healthy balanced diet, so that’s where we start with all our clients.
Let’s look at these three elements in depth.
#1 WHAT To Eat On A Balanced Diet?
The first question that comes to our mind is…
Well, it all beings with… Calories.
Some love them and others hate them!
We are somewhere in between (although if you’re looking to lose weight for the long term, we say – do not count calories, it’s not a sustainable approach).
There is no doubt that if you eat fewer calories than you expend then you will lose weight, but the trouble comes when you try to determine how much you eat and how much you expend.
Not only do we know from myriad studies that people consistently under-report their food intake, we also have issues with knowing how much gets expended.
You probably know that a calorie is a unit of energy – like a gram is a unit of weight – and it can be used to measure energy in all forms. When we talk about a balanced diet or losing weight, we think about the simple equation: energy in = energy out, but it’s actually not that straightforward.
Energy is measured in the form of calories so to know how much is going in and out of your body, you need to know how much you are putting in from food and drinks, and what is being used (or burned) by your metabolism and physical activity.
To explain the problems with this, let’s dispel a few myths.
“If you reduce your calories you will lose weight healthily.”
This one can be true but more often than not it isn’t.
Your body needs a range of macro- and micronutrients to function efficiently and if you concentrate only on calories then you may be missing out on essential nutrients.
For example, it is very difficult to get all the nutrients you need from a diet that’s less than 1,200kcal per day.
So if you decide to use half your calorie allowance on a 600kcal juice diet rather than having a nutrient-dense 600kcal Whole egg omelette and salad, it’s easy to see that you may not be getting everything you need.
“We know exactly how many calories are there, in specific foods…”
The methods for determining the calorie content of food are known to be pretty imprecise.
Plus, without weighing everything with accurate scales, you can be pretty sure that the calories you count in the foods you eat are at best a good guess, at worst completely wrong, and this problem is especially evident in India where the food authorities and rules are not as stringent as ones in the developed nations.
“We know how many calories we burn”
Everybody has different metabolic rates that are in turn affected by all sorts of things, such as the amount of muscle you have and the temperature of the room you happen to be in.
Although possible, measuring basal metabolic rate accurately is pretty impractical in real life and becomes even harder when you factor in specific exercise.
So again we are back to best guess/completely wrong territory.
NO, we are not bad-mouthing calorie counting.
It’s a great idea to know roughly how much energy is in a food and to make educated choices about what you eat by reading food labels etc. but remember it’s going to be a good guess at best.
This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – a good guess is all you really need – but concentrating on only one nutrient (energy) in food is unlikely to be the healthiest way to do it.
Counting calories in a meal is like counting the words in a book: it will tell you one thing about the meal but not the only useful thing.
So in this blog post we attempt to suggest a different way to guide your eating.
Instead of the usual “balanced diet pyramids”, we thought we should explain each of the parameter of the pyramid for you.
The #1 Macro-Nutrient Of Any Indian Balanced Diet Chart – Carbohydrates
In recent times, weight loss and carbohydrates have been deemed as rubber and glue!
But do not mistake carbs as evil.
Our bodies have evolved to use carbohydrates as the primary source of fuel.
This means that whenever we use energy – for running, waving our arms about or even thinking – the body always looks for carbohydrate energy first.
The brain is the hungriest of all the organs and, in most circumstances, likes to run only on carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates come mainly from foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, oats and wheat and these foods are known as starchy or complex carbohydrates, which have long chains of molecules which take time to break down and digest.
Carbohydrates also come in simple forms such as sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruit and sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup) and glucose, which are made up of only one or two molecules and are therefore much quicker to digest.
These are the kinds of carbohydrates that we typically think of as sugar.
Carbs are measured on a scale known as the glycaemic index or GI scale.
The glycaemic index or GI of a food tells us how quickly the carbohydrate from that food enters our bloodstream compared to glucose.
Glycemix Index Table Of Common Foods
|FOOD||Glycemic index (glucose = 100)||Serving size (grams)||Glycemic load per serving|
|BAKERY PRODUCTS AND BREADS|
|Banana cake, made with sugar||47||60||14|
|Banana cake, made without sugar||55||60||12|
|Sponge cake, plain||46||63||17|
|Vanilla cake made from packet mix with vanilla frosting (Betty Crocker)||42||111||24|
|Apple muffin, made with rolled oats and sugar||44||60||13|
|Apple muffin, made with rolled oats and without sugar||48||60||9|
|Waffles, Aunt Jemima®||76||35||10|
|Bagel, white, frozen||72||70||25|
|Baguette, white, plain||95||30||14|
|Coarse barley bread, 80% kernels||34||30||7|
|50% cracked wheat kernel bread||58||30||12|
|White wheat flour bread, average||75||30||11|
|Wonder® bread, average||73||30||10|
|Whole wheat bread, average||69||30||9|
|100% Whole Grain® bread (Natural Ovens)||51||30||7|
|Pita bread, white||68||30||10|
|Coca Cola® (US formula)||63||250 mL||16|
|Fanta®, orange soft drink||68||250 mL||23|
|Lucozade®, original (sparkling glucose drink)||95||250 mL||40|
|Apple juice, unsweetened||41||250 mL||12|
|Cranberry juice cocktail (Ocean Spray®)||68||250 mL||24|
|Gatorade, orange flavor (US formula)||89||250 mL||13|
|Orange juice, unsweetened, average||50||250 mL||12|
|Tomato juice, canned, no sugar added||38||250 mL||4|
|BREAKFAST CEREALS AND RELATED PRODUCTS|
|Coco Pops®, average||77||30||20|
|Cream of Wheat®||66||250||17|
|Cream of Wheat®, Instant||74||250||22|
|Instant oatmeal, average||79||250||21|
|Puffed wheat cereal||80||30||17|
|Special K® (US formula)||69||30||14|
|Pearled barley, average||25||150||11|
|Sweet corn on the cob||48||60||14|
|White rice, boiled, type non-specified||72||150||29|
|Quick cooking white basmati||63||150||26|
|Brown rice, steamed||50||150||16|
|Parboiled Converted white rice (Uncle Ben’s®)||38||150||14|
|Whole wheat kernels, average||45||50||15|
|COOKIES AND CRACKERS|
|Rice cakes, average||82||25||17|
|Rye crisps, average||64||25||11|
|DAIRY PRODUCTS AND ALTERNATIVES|
|Ice cream, regular, average||62||50||8|
|Ice cream, premium (Sara Lee®)||38||50||3|
|Milk, full-fat, average||31||250 mL||4|
|Milk, skim, average||31||250 mL||4|
|Reduced-fat yogurt with fruit, average||33||200||11|
|Banana, raw, average||48||120||11|
|Dates, dried, average||42||60||18|
|Oranges, raw, average||45||120||5|
|Peach, canned in light syrup||52||120||9|
|Pear, raw, average||38||120||4|
|Pear, canned in pear juice||44||120||5|
|BEANS AND NUTS|
|Chickpeas, canned in brine||42||150||9|
|Navy beans, average||39||150||12|
|Kidney beans, average||34||150||9|
|Soy beans, average||15||150||1|
|PASTA and NOODLES|
|Macaroni and Cheese (Kraft®)||64||180||33|
|Spaghetti, white, boiled, average||46||180||22|
|Spaghetti, white, boiled 20 min||58||180||26|
|Spaghetti, whole-grain, boiled||42||180||17|
|Corn chips, plain, salted||42||50||11|
|M & M’s®, peanut||33||30||6|
|Microwave popcorn, plain, average||65||20||7|
|Potato chips, average||56||50||12|
|Snickers Bar®, average||51||60||18|
|Baked russet potato||111||150||33|
|Boiled white potato, average||82||150||21|
|Instant mashed potato, average||87||150||17|
|Sweet potato, average||70||150||22|
|Hummus (chickpea salad dip)||6||30||0|
|Chicken nuggets, frozen, reheated in microwave oven 5 min||46||100||7|
|Pizza, plain baked dough, served with parmesan cheese and tomato sauce||80||100||22|
|Pizza, Super Supreme (Pizza Hut®)||36||100||9|
Whole grains such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta etc. take the longest to be digested and are known as slow-release carbohydrates or low GI.
Foods that have a lot of simple sugars have a high GI.
We can’t store a great deal of carbohydrate in our bodies, which is why we need to eat carbohydrate regularly.
We store some in our muscles and some in our liver, and we have some in our blood – our blood sugar – which provides a ready-energy source.
When you eat carbohydrates your body breaks them down in to glucose, which gets absorbed into the bloodstream.
The pancreas then releases a hormone called insulin which “unlocks” the cells to allow the glucose to enter the cells where it can be converted into energy.
Let’s look at an example of how this works in real life.
- Let’s say you eat some fiber-rich oats for breakfast.
- This is a wholegrain, low-GI, complex carbohydrate so it takes time to be digested and the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream gradually.
- Your blood sugar rises gradually and your body releases insulin to get that carbohydrate out of the blood and into the cells so it can be converted into energy and blood sugar comes back down.
- When carbohydrate stores are low, our bodies switch to using other forms of fuel: fat and protein.
- Using fat as an energy source might sound brilliant, and it’s how most low-carb diets work, but it’s impossible to protect your lean body mass from being broken down as well.
- So if you skip the carbs, yes you will burn some fat, but you will also lose muscle mass!
The problem with this is that muscle is good for your health and muscle cells use a lot of energy just by being a muscle cell.
So the higher our muscle mass, the higher our metabolism and the more energy – or calories – we use, “just by being”.
If you are always breaking down muscle, then you never get this benefit.
This is particularly pertinent if you exercise without eating carbohydrates and is one of the reasons that people don’t see the results they want from the gym.
Carbs have had a pretty bad rap over the past decade or so and a lot of our clients come to us having tried to cut them down completely.
But because carbs are so integral to the use of energy in our bodies, people often crave them.
The constant restriction of carbs often leads to cravings, which often leads to giving in to those cravings, which in turn often leads to feelings of failure and low self-esteem.
Our advice is to eat carbs, mostly low-GI, in the right amount. Not too much, not too little.
The Balanced Diet Chart’s Superhero = Protein
In the world of nutrition, we use the term protein to refer to a food group, but actually, unsurprisingly, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Proteins are extremely complex compounds made from collections of smaller components called amino acids.
And there are a vast number of combinations of amino acid arrangements to form different proteins with different functions.
Most people understand that protein has a role in muscle growth but proteins do a lot more than that.
Proteins are an important structural element for cells.
The antibodies used by the immune system to defend our bodies are made from proteins.
Proteins are responsible for transporting other molecules around the body (such as hemoglobin in blood, which carries oxygen).
Enzymes are made of proteins and are responsible for things such as digestion and speeding up chemical reactions.
Chemical messengers such as hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain are also made of proteins; and as we mentioned in the previous section, protein can also be used as an energy source.
- The antibodies used by the immune system to defend our bodies are made from proteins.
- Proteins are responsible for transporting other molecules around the body (such as haemoglobin in blood, which carries oxygen).
- Enzymes are made of proteins and are responsible for things such as digestion and speeding up chemical reactions.
- Chemical messengers such as hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain are also made of proteins.
- And as we mentioned in the previous section, protein can also be used as an energy source. .
We definitely cannot live without protein and not getting enough protein results in a whole host of symptoms collectively known as protein-energy malnutrition.
There are over 20 amino acids in our food and different foods contain a different mix of them. We need to get all of them to make new proteins.
Our bodies can make some amino acids, but there are some that we have to get through food.
Protein in our diet comes from either animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs or cheese, or from plant sources such as soya, tofu, beans and legumes.
Animal foods tend to have all the amino acids whereas most plant foods tend to be missing one or other (although there are some exceptions to both these rules of thumb).
Because of this, to get the complete range of amino acids from plant foods, you generally need to get a mixture.
Beans and legumes tend to have amino acids that are complementary to grains so traditional combinations such as beans and whole grain chapati/roti/flat bread or simply rice and peas are winning unions.
Imagine your boiled egg or bean wrap is made of Lego and all the different shaped and coloured blocks are the amino acids.
Just like you would take apart your castle made of plastic bricks and reassemble it into a space rocket, your digestive system takes all the proteins apart into individual amino acids and builds new proteins out of them.
Most of in India following a non-vegetarian diet get more protein than we actually need but if we don’t get enough through our diet our body will look to its protein stores.
The biggest available store of protein we have is our muscles so muscle cells will get broken down in order to recycle the amino acids to make into whatever is necessary to keep essential functions going.
Your body will prioritise pretty effectively if this happens.
For example, in India, research has shown that a whopping 52% women aged 15-49 women are anaemic, plus young girls with a very low weight – such as those with anorexia nervosa – will often lose their menstrual cycle because their body prioritizes other protein-reliant functions over sex hormones.
The other thing that is often overlooked is the fact that the body prioritizes energy.
This means that before anything else, the body makes sure that your energy needs are taken care of before using the nutrients you eat for other things.
Let’s say you have a chicken breast and salad for lunch: relatively low in calories and no carbohydrates.
Instead of the protein being used for the jobs that only protein can do (hormones, enzymes, immune system etc) actually a lot of that protein gets converted into glucose to be used as an energy source.
So even if you think you are getting plenty of protein, you may still not be getting enough if you aren’t including carbs (and fat) as well.
The effect of adding some rice or potato to your chicken salad is in fact extremely beneficial as the carbs get used for energy and the protein gets used for protein-dependent functions.
Which is the reason why a good dietitian should always use the words – “balanced diet” when he/she talk about a healthy diet.
It’s also important to understand that protein has the same number of calories per gram (if not slightly more) as carbohydrates.
So if you eat twice as much protein as you need, a lot of that protein will be converted into stored calories.
Our advice is, if you are searching for a balanced diet, first start by eating protein combined with carbohydrates, in the right amount.
Not too much, not too little.
The (Wrongly Attributed) Black Sheep Of The Balanced Diet – Fats
Dietary fats have a mixed reputation these days.
For years it’s been mainstream doctrine to eat a low-fat diet to protect against heart disease and being overweight, but recently the focus seems to have shifted away from fat and sugar has become the new bad guy.
And there is no shortage of fad diets that call for plenty of fat: be it ladled into your coffee in the form of butter or by adding tablespoonful’s of coconut oil to everything you eat.
Fat is truly amazing at storing energy.
One gram of fat stores 9 calories, which is more than double the energy that carbs and protein can store per gram. In evolutionary terms this is great because we can store energy very efficiently in the form of fat during times of feast, to keep us going in times of famine.
Brilliant if you have long winters or shortage of foods but not great if you never have less energy than you can use.
In which case you just end up storing a lot of fat over time.
We know fat is a great source of energy so it’s a natural choice when it comes to cutting down on energy consumption – you can cut a lot of calories without cutting much volume of food, which works well for people who get very hungry.
The trouble is that obesity is higher now than before the experts starting recommending low-fat diets but it’s difficult to know why this might be.
Is it for instance that when striving to reduce fat in their products manufacturers ended up adding calories in the form of sugar to make it palatable?
Is it that people didn’t actually reduce their fat intake despite the recommendations?
Is it that eating a low-fat diet is so boring that people end up eating more food to try to get the pleasure response from food?
In reality it might be a combination of all these things.
Fat is a name given to a food group, but there are actually lots of fats.
You may be familiar with the term “good” fats and “bad” fats, and this is of course an oversimplification and there is emerging evidence that the bad fats may not actually be as bad as was once thought, although for the purposes of a balanced diet and health this way of grouping them is quite helpful.
The “good” fats are mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as those in olive, sunflower oils, and these are implicated in good heart-health and can have anti-inflammatory properties so are very good for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The “bad” fats are the saturated ones implicated in high cholesterol levels (we should say at this point that there is increasing evidence in recent years that is contradicting these old findings).
Butter, ghee, palm oil (often used in baked goods) and coconut oil are saturated fats and are wrongly made to fall in to the “bad” fats category.
Fat is where we get fat-soluble vitamins from. If you don’t have fat in your diet you won’t absorb fat-soluble vitamins from your diet.
Fat is also a component of cell structure.
Every cell membrane is made partly from fat so it’s a very necessary nutrient.
Our body can manufacture some fats but there are some it can’t and these are what we call the essential fats: it is essential we get them through our diet otherwise we can’t get them at all.
An example of some essential fats is the omega-3 group.
These fats are found in oily fish; nuts, seeds and their oils; omega-3 eggs and dark-green leafy vegetables (in small amounts).
Omega-3 fats are the preferred fat for brain-cell membranes and have a role to play in mood so if you don’t get enough, it means your body has to substitute other fats for this purpose and that can affect mood.
Fat, in the right amounts, adds a good texture to food so when you eat it, it feels pleasant in the mouth.
It is also quite satiating.
When you eat fat, signals get sent to the brain to say that you’ve had lots of energy and as a result you feel satisfied.
You will not be surprised to hear that our advice is to eat fat, mostly “good fats”, in the right amount.
Not too much, not too little.
A Balanced Diet Cannot Be Complete Without Fruit & Vegetables
When we ask clients if they know how many portions of fruit and veg they are supposed to eat every day, nearly all of them say two or three.
The right answer?
At least 4 to 8 (including vegetables).
When we then ask why they don’t get their daily recommended amounts there seem to be a few main reasons.
Availability: people lead such busy lives and don’t have time to cook from scratch; it’s easier to just grab a sandwich at lunchtime; vegetables are expensive and they go bad if you don’t eat them.
Inclination: vegetables don’t taste nice; they take too much effort to prepare. Every single process in the body requires at least one vitamin or mineral that acts as a catalyst or co-factor.
In short, nothing can really happen properly without vitamins and minerals.
But fruit and vegetables don’t just give us nutrients.
They also give us fiber which is essential for digestive health, keeps us full, can help lower cholesterol and lower the glycaemic load of a meal, meaning that carbohydrate enters the bloodstream more gradually.
There is evidence that a higher intake of fruit and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of some cancers, and this seems to be beyond just their vitamin and mineral content.
There is emerging evidence that phytochemicals (compounds such as flavonoids and resveratrol, both found in plants) are important for health.
Our advice – for a balanced diet and meal plan, load up on veggies (and less fruits) every day. Especially vegetables, eat as many low GI vegetables you want.
Make the effort, it’s really worth it.
In fact, it really doesn’t have to even be an effort. Feel free to buy ready, chopped or prepared vegetables, frozen, etc. They all count.
HINT: One portion is as much as you can fit in your cupped hand, so everyone needs at least five handfuls of different fruits and vegetables every day.
Hidden Players – Micronutrients
Vitamins and minerals are essential for health but our bodies can’t make them so we need to get them through our diet.
They are nutrients we need only in small amounts but if you don’t get enough vitamins and minerals then you will eventually end up with micronutrient deficiencies.
As we mentioned before, reactions that happen in the body can’t happen without vitamins or minerals.
For example, to make a skin cell your body needs, among other things, vitamin C to produce collagen, which is a protein in skin.
Vitamin C is water-soluble, which means we can’t store very much of it in the body.
Any excess water-soluble vitamins get excreted from the body in urine, so we need to get these vitamins every day. If you don’t eat enough foods containing vitamin C then you won’t be able to make a skin cell.
The deficiency condition for vitamin C is scurvy, where the gums swell and bleed and wounds can’t heal.
Fortunately, vitamin C is plentiful in most Indian diets and scurvy is very rare thanks to the availability of tropical fruit and vegetables and ascorbic acid is often used as a preservative in processed food.
But other deficiencies are more common.
A Balanced Diet Can Never Be Complete Without – IRON
Iron carries oxygen around the body to all the organs including the brain.
Tissues and cells in the body depend on oxygen to function properly; if they receive less oxygen, they won’t work so well.
Iron deficiency is called anaemia. It is one of the common nutrient deficiencies in India, and women and teenage girls are particularly at risk because of the amount of iron lost in menstrual blood each month.
In fact, Indian women need nearly twice as much iron as men yet they often eat less iron-rich foods than men.
If too little is eaten in the diet it can cause tiredness, lethargy and “brain- fog” – the exact conditions that prime someone for a sugar fix!
Iron comes from red meat, beans, pulses, dried fruit, dark-green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fortified foods such as white flour products and breakfast cereals.
One thing to note is that plant sources tend to have less iron than meat so if you rely mainly on these then you may need to eat a bit more to ensure you are getting enough.
Nutrients often interact with each other – mostly positively, but sometimes negatively.
For example, iron uses the same absorption pathways as some other nutrients so if they are eaten together this can limit the amount of either nutrient absorbed.
This is true for calcium and iron – calcium usually wins – so if they’re eaten together a smaller than normal amount of iron will be absorbed.
Iron absorption is also hindered by tannins and phytates.
Tannins are found in significant amounts in tea, coffee and red wine, and in smaller amounts in many other foods.
Phytates are plant stores of phosphorus, which helps seeds to sprout, and are found in the outer layers of plant seeds.
When the seed is intact it is known as wholemeal or whole grain.
When foods are refined, such as in white flour for bread and pasta, these outer layers are removed and with them are the phytates along with lots of micronutrients including iron.
This is why white bread is a better source of iron than wholemeal bread: white flour has a good amount of iron without any of the phytates that hinder absorption.
The Balanced Diet’s Bone Supporters – Calcium And Vitamin D
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body.
Most (99%) of it is found in bone and the rest is in fluids such as blood plasma.
Calcium in bone provides strength and calcium in the blood is used for electrical reactions such as muscle movement, nerve functioning and cell signalling.
To absorb calcium into the bones, vitamin D is needed.
So sometimes symptoms associated with calcium deficiency may actually be because of a lack of vitamin D.
Vitamin D is not actually a vitamin in the true definition of the word.
We can make vitamin D and it is usually made by our skin in the presence of sunlight and is actually in very few foods.
Because our exposure to sunlight is getting reduced day-by-day, thanks to our urban lifestyle – vitamin D deficiency in Indian is relatively common.
This problem is intensified since most of us are relatively dark skinned, which makes it more difficult to create it.
That’s why, a Vitamin D supplement is not uncalled in today’s times.
Levels of calcium in the blood need to be carefully balanced within a narrow range in order to maintain these functions so that when dietary intake is low, calcium gets released from the bones into the blood to keep blood-calcium constant.
For this reason (unless there is something wrong with this mechanism) calcium deficiency is generally hard to see and can’t really be measured by a blood test.
Sadly, it is often not recognized until weak bones cause fractures and breaks.
Women are particularly at risk from osteoporosis (weak bones) because they lose hormonal protection of their bones after the menopause.
Calcium is found in foods made from milk (curd, cheese); the small bones in fish; fortified products such as soya milk and calcium water; dark green leafy vegetables; and legumes.
Balanced Diet Core – Hydration
Water is essential for life. Heck, water is life.
The body is roughly two-thirds water and this fluid performs many functions including the transport of nutrients, maintaining blood volume, removing waste products via urine and aiding movement of waste through the bowel, as well as acting as a lubricant and shock absorber in joints.
It also regulates the body’s temperature.
Looking at that list of jobs, it’s easy to see why drinking enough water is vital to maintain good health in the short and long term – for example, the prevention of constipation, kidney stones and urinary tract infections.
Good hydration can also prevent other conditions such as chronic renal disease.
Dehydration happens when you don’t replace the fluids lost through urine, sweat and breathing.
The most obvious symptom is thirst but it’s not the only one or even necessarily the first.
A headache, a lack of concentration, lethargy or mood swings are not commonly recognized as such but they are all marks of dehydration.
Both fine and gross motor skills are also affected, although you may not necessarily notice impairment in your motor skills (unless you are trying to thread a needle for example!).
Dehydration is very common, and not everyone is aware of how it can affect the way we feel and our energy levels.
If you ever find yourself lacking in energy and reaching for a sugar hit then read on.
Mid-afternoon is when a lot of Indians seem at their most vulnerable to this sweet-snacking behavior, but this can be counterproductive as it may well cause a spike in blood sugar, which is then followed by a crash.
When that afternoon lull happens just having a drink of water can perk you up no end – without the calorie input and sugar crash.
So what drinks are good for rehydration?
Water and anything that contains it will generally rehydrate, so if you don’t like water but will happily drink tea– particularly if it has no added sugar like in green tea – that’s good.
Coffee also counts as do soft drinks, but do think about the sugar content and remember that too much caffeine may impair your sleep. [Is diet coke better than regular? Find out here.]
There are all sorts of things that affect hydration levels though.
For example, sweating is a mechanism to cool the body so if it is hot (and that’s the normal in most parts of India!) and you sweat a lot you will be losing a significant amount of fluid, which will need to be replaced.
Short of measuring the amount of fluid you eat, drink and excrete, there is another way to gauge your hydration level.
There are systems in your body that hold on to water if you are dehydrated and that means that urine volume goes down.
However, you still need to rid your body of all those waste products, which leaves urine looking darker.
So, the color of your urine is a very good indicator of your hydration status.
It should be a pale straw color, if it’s darker than that you need to top up!
#2 WHEN To Eat
It All Depends On How Well Your Body Manages – Blood sugar
Blood sugar is a very important consideration in a healthy balanced diet, especially when you are trying to lose weight.
When a food containing carbohydrate is eaten, it gets broken down into glucose which then enters the bloodstream.
As blood sugar (or blood glucose to give it its proper name) rises, a hormone called insulin is released which gets the sugar out of the blood and into the cells, where it is made into energy we can use.
This is called a glycaemic response.
As the sugar gets used up and blood sugar starts to fall, a feeling of hunger is usually triggered.
Hunger manifests itself differently in different people.
Some have a very acute sense of hunger and need to eat, whereas others can go for hours without eating anything.
Some people get tired or grumpy as a result of low blood sugar and others get shaky.
A lot of people get a feeling of emptiness accompanied by a growling in their abdominal region.
So the hunger signal triggers the eating process and the whole thing starts again.
Our bodies will always try to keep blood sugar within a limited range.
If blood sugar goes too high it’s a problem because sugar molecules are large and if there is too many of them in the blood they can damage the walls of the small blood vessels in our eyes, kidneys and nerves as they try to crowd through the narrow spaces.
This is why diabetes is such a problem: because blood sugar is often too high it can lead to blindness, kidney failure and amputations owing to the damage done to these blood vessels.
In a person without diabetes, if blood sugar does go too high, we have this amazing protective mechanism that brings it back down to a safe level.
The same response to the sugar happens but in a more extreme way: masses of insulin is released.
This is brilliant news for your small blood vessels but there are other consequences of this that are important. The body has had a mini-panic about having too much sugar in the blood, and its priority was to get blood sugar down to a safe level.
So, whereas the sugar would normally enter the cells where it can be made into usable energy, in this case it just gets swiftly cleared from the blood and stored.
In fat cells.
Yep, around the middle part of our bodies!
So that’s one negative consequence: we end up storing the excess energy as belly fat.
Another is that following this sugar spike, we now have a sugar crash on our hands.
Because a lot of insulin was released, we now have low blood sugar and probably feel a bit hungry or tired again and so need to eat.
Not only have we just stored a load of energy, we are about to take in a load more.
This is one reason why it’s so easy to gain weight around the middle.
On the other end of the scale, if blood sugar goes too low, eventually we would go into a coma.
But thankfully there is another protective mechanism to stop this from happening: our liver.
The liver will release some stored carbohydrate into the bloodstream to bring it back up to a safe level.
But low blood sugar may cause you to be very hungry and then it’s difficult to make a rational decision about how much you need to eat and you can easily overeat.
So why might blood sugar go above a safe threshold?
If you were to have a large cookie, for example, this is made mostly of white flour (high-GI carbohydrate), sugar (high-GI carbohydrate) and some fat.
The high glycaemic index means it will enter the bloodstream very quickly, leading to a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Or, if you were to have a very large bowl of pasta (medium-GI), even though it is not quite so quick to enter the bloodstream, because you ate a very large portion, blood sugar would continue to rise, albeit more gradually, until at some point it would go above the threshold and then you would get the sugar crash.
So why might blood sugar go below the safe threshold?
If you go for long periods without eating – such as skipping meals – or if you have a sugar crash following a sugar spike, or if you skip carbs at meals.
And what about keeping it within the limits?
It’s actually pretty easy.
Eat regularly and include some – but not too much – carbohydrate.
It’s a good idea to eat low-GI carbohydrates when you can, but this doesn’t have to be all the time by any means.
It’s possible to lower the impact of a food’s GI by having a good balance in your meals.
For example, adding fibre to a meal slows down the digestion process and the carbohydrate will enter the blood more slowly.
To give an example, a slice of white toast with butter is relatively high GI. If you add peanut butter and slices of tomato (sources of fibre), blood sugar rises more gradually. You can also alter the glycaemic load (GL) of a meal by reducing the amount of carbohydrate init.
A bowl of pasta with oil and black pepper has a medium GL, but if you were to have a little less pasta and add some cheese and mushrooms to it, you are reducing the portion of carbohydrate without reducing the size of the meal.
As an added bonus you are also increasing your nutrient intake.
The other thing about blood sugar, which we touched on before, is that energy levels are partly determined by what blood sugar is doing.
Low blood sugar can often leave us tired and in need of an energy fix.
The natural place to look for that fix is from something sugary.
This is bad news if you are trying to lose weight because you inadvertently end up eating a lot of calories that you don’t need and you may also end up feeling guilty for not sticking to your diet!
We have lost count of the number of clients we see who say they stick to their diets in the mornings but by mid-afternoon they have fallen completely off the wagon.
These people tend to follow the same dietary patterns: no breakfast, fruit or some other kind of healthy snack mid-morning, followed by a low-carb lunch.
It’s no wonder that by three o’clock they are craving chocolate and sweet juices.
They have starved their bodies of its preferred fuel all day until the part of the brain concerned with survival overrules all saintly resolutions to be carb-free and heads straight for the vending machine.
Although dietitians go on about breakfast being the most important meal of the day (it’s definitely one of them), there is actually very little evidence that skipping breakfast will make you eat more calories during the day.
But from our experience we’ve definitely noticed that cravings for carbs occur more in people who skip breakfast than those who don’t.
By just having breakfast and including carbs at lunch, energy levels will be up, cravings will be down and self-esteem will be maintained because you don’t have to beat yourself up about another failed day of dieting.
When Should You Eat Next Depends On – “Real” Hunger
One of the things we hear regularly is that clients get hungry at about 11am but try to hold off until lunch.
Or that they have breakfast mid-morning because if they have it when they get up they are hungry again mid-morning.
Some people have a strange relationship with hunger.
We often hear people say that feeling hungry and not giving in to it can feel virtuous.
If they get into bed at the end of the day hungry then they have succeeded.
This is completely backwards.
We want you to take a minute just to think about the purpose of a hunger signal.
Why do we get the feeling of hunger?
What is our body trying to tell us?
That’s right. We get hungry because we need nutrients.
So when we feel hungry we are compelled to eat.
If you ignore a hunger signal you deny your body the nutrients it needs to function.
Hunger is a pretty blunt instrument.
We don’t have different hunger signals for potassium or iron, or for protein or carbs. It’s just hunger.
So if you only eat salad because you are trying to lose weight and your body really needs some iron or protein you are going to stay hungry.
restriction of certain food groups, the classic “diets” are so hard to follow long-term.
If you feel hungry this is a good indication that you need to eat.
Some people have very strong hunger signals and must eat regularly and find it hard to go hungry, but for most people hunger is quite a subtle signal at first and can be relatively easy to override.
Let’s look at the people who find skipping breakfast makes them less hungry throughout the day.
Why should this be so? It seems to be counter intuitive but many people find this.
Some have speculated that by not eating for long periods, you are tricking your body into thinking there is no food around.
If there really was a famine, then it might be an evolutionary advantage to not be hungry all the time and waste precious energy hunting for food that isn’t there, or to drive yourself mad with hunger.
We know that our bodies are incredible at adapting so this may well be true.
One study found that people who routinely skip breakfast become accustomed to not eating and when they do eat a meal their glucose metabolism is slightly different and might in turn lead to hunger signals.
We can definitely survive on very little food for a pretty long time, but people who don’t skip meals do tend to have a more balanced diet over the course of a day and have a lower risk of weight gain.
We may be able to survive without eating regularly, but it is difficult to thrive in this situation.
If you are trying to achieve something like muscle growth at the gym, or weight loss, it is much harder to achieve this if you aren’t giving your body the nutrients it needs – including energy – regularly.
So we never worry too much about people being hungrier and eating more regularly throughout the day.
The benefits of a more balanced diet can outweigh the extra calories eaten.
Also, just because you are getting hungrier doesn’t have to mean you necessarily eat more either.
As well as the hunger signal, we also need to pay attention to the satiety signaltoo.
The Important Role Of Snacks In A Balanced Diet
The purpose of a snack is to keep your blood sugar nice and even and is an opportunity to consume some nutrients.
In theory, any food can be a snack food but in practice there are some favorites that are quick and work well.
It’s great to get a couple of food groups into a snack as it will keep you going for longer.
Carbohydrate: Stick to slow-release carbohydrates to maintain a good blood sugar level.
Avoid sweets and refined carbs as stand-alone snacks because these will cause blood sugar spikes.
Save sugary foods for after-meals, where the fibre will moderate the rate of glucose absorption.
Protein: Adding some protein in your snacks will keep you fuller for longer.
Fruit/veg: Vitamins and minerals are needed for nearly every process in the body and you need to get at least five portions a day, so snacking on fruit and veg is a great way to boost your intake.
#3 HOW To Eat – The Balanced Diet’s Structure
There is a tool we often use for bringing everything together that we call the Balanced Food Plan:
3 meals, 2 snacks, 2-3 hours between each. That’s it.
To most people, this probably sounds like an awful lot of eating.
It is and it isn’t.
If you eat large amounts at each meal and snack then, yes, you will consume a lot of food.
But that’s not the idea.
The idea is to eat the right amount of food at regular intervals.
This won’t suit everyone but it is a great way to get some structure to your eating and gives you a good basis to get in touch with your hunger and satiety levels.
Any snack that’s rich in fiber and mineral/vitamins.
Fruit or vegetable
Fun food (optional)
#4 HOW MUCH To Eat – The Balanced Diet’s Portion Size Guide
The Balanced diet menu and portion guide
Knowing how much to eat can be tricky.
Obviously eating the right amount of something is ideal, but if you don’t know how much the right amount is then you’re a bit stuck.
As we’ve mentioned before, calories are an insufficient way of knowing the right amount as they only guide us to the right amount of one nutrient: energy.
Our favourite guide to knowing how much is about right is simple, it involves no menus or knowing intricate food details, involves no weighing and can be used wherever you are.
Your hands are great because you always have them with you but the rule can apply to everyone.
If you are a giant, you have giant hands and you need giant portions and if you are small you need smaller portions.
The other great thing about your hands is that they don’t change much.
No matter what your weight status (under or over) your hands stay roughly the same size.
Someone who is overweight will need more nutrients to maintain their weight than someone who is the right weight because there is more of them to function.
So if the overweight person and the person who is the right weight have the same size hands and eat the same size portions then the overweight person will lose weight (as they are eating less than they need so are using their stores) and the person who is the right weight will maintain their weight (they are eating the right amount to keep their functions going).
It’s a good guide also because it’s relatively inconspicuous.
In a restaurant for example, you don’t have to get your scales out and weight your pasta, you just separate out a pile that’s roughly the size of your fist.
A portion of protein is about the size of the palm of your hand and on average you need 2-3 portions of protein a day.
This is roughly just under a portion per meal.
A portion of carbohydrates is about the size of your fist and on average you need about 4-6 portions per day.
This is partly dependent on how much activity you are doing.
For e.g. say you are running a marathon, well you are more likely to need five portions than four portions that day.
This works out to be about 1-1½ portions per meal and some for snacks.
A portion of vegetables is about what you can fit in your cupped hand.
You need about 4-6 portions of fruit and veg a day with a ratio of about two portions of fruit to three of veg.
This is about 1½ portions per meal.
This is an average and it doesn’t matter if you get more than this, but there are a couple of rules to follow: don’t eat vegetables at the expense of protein and carbs.
This means that if you eat so many vegetables that you aren’t hungry enough to eat a balanced meal then you are eating too many vegetables.
The other is that you should aim for about one handful of fruit at a time.
Fruit has quite a bit of sugar in it and although it is healthy, if you eat too much in one go then it can cause a blood sugar spike.
A portion of fat is about the size of the tip of your thumb.
You need 2 portions a day to get all the fat-soluble vitamins but it’s pretty easy to get this from food without really trying.
Egg yolks, full-fat dairy, cheese, oily fish, red meat, nuts and seeds, etc. are already rich sources of fat so if you eat a lot of these anyway then you are likely getting plenty.
Remember that fat is high in calories and too much may stop you from losing weight.
As a rule, try to stick to no more than one thumb-tip of additional oil per meal.
So if you are frying in oil, stick to that amount per portion. If the recipe for two servings calls for a tablespoon of oil, reduce this to 2 thumb-tips.
For most people a thumb-tip corresponds to about a teaspoon, depending on how big your thumbs are.
Method 2: The plate model
The other guide we like to use is the plate model.
At mealtimes, mentally (or physically if you like) divide your plate into three.
Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables or a combination of fruit or vegetables; a quarter with carbohydrates; and a quarter with protein.
If you do this, the chances that you are getting a balanced diet are very high.
Now obviously if your plate is the size of a saucer then this isn’t going to be enough food, and if it’s the size of a dustbin lid then this is going to be way too much.
You should use this plate model in combination with your hand-size measures.
This is very easy if you are doing a meat, potatoes and veg meal, but it is a little bit trickier if you are having a complex dish.
Short of separating out the meat from the vegetables and pasta it can be hard to know what you are getting.
If you are making it from scratch then you can do the measuring as you put the ingredients in.
Remember: it’s a guide and a little bit either side will make hardly any difference.
So what if someone else is cooking or you’re in a restaurant?
Well there are a few ways to deal with these situations.
You could visually assess what’s on your plate and estimate if it’s mainly meat or mainly vegetables etc.
If you’re eating a “ready-to-cook” type of meal, you could check the ingredients list (things are listed in weight order so the most plentiful is first) or ask whoever made it; or, if it is a one-off meal and the rest of the time you make all your own food, then you could just not worry about it too much.
If you are in a restaurant you could order a more modular meal like some kind of protein with vegetables and carbs.
This brings us almost to the end of this “balanced diet chart for weight loss” post.
Hopefully you now have enough information to eat well, lose weight and build a good, healthy relationship with food.