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What Is a Balanced Diet

"Michael Philips is a California-based professional with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology, who is also a trained sports nutritionist and certified personal trainer. He is an accomplished professional in the academic and commercial sectors, with a focus on scientific communications and education over the past decade. He is experienced in the research, development, and marketing of ingestible consumer goods and medical devices, and is passionate about the intersection of science and human health."

Every five years, the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) release the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) [1]. According to the DGA website, this document “provides advice on what to eat and drink to meet nutrient needs, promote health, and prevent disease” [2]. The current edition covers the years 2020-2025 and builds upon previous editions with the most current research available. The Dietary Guidelines aims to provide a foundation for healthy eating, or a balanced diet plan, that can be adapted to an individual’s needs, including for fasts such as intermittent fasting (16:8 fast, 14:10 fast, alternate-day fasting, 20:4 fasting, etc), cultural fasting, and religious fasting.

It is well known that an individual’s diet, fasted or not, has an impact on their overall health, which is why a well-balanced diet is important. In the United States, a significant portion of the adult population struggles with preventable chronic diseases that are related to poor diet and lack of exercise. The current edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans puts an emphasis on incorporating nutrient-dense foods and beverages, which is a useful strategy for those on a fasting plan. 

Simply put, nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrient content and relatively low in calories. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates, which will help keep you feeling full for longer (which is great for any fasting plan). The DGA also recommends limiting the intake of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, as well as alcoholic beverages to round out a balanced diet [3]. 

And remember, a healthy diet with balanced nutrition can still be part of an eating routine. In fact, the benefits of a balanced diet may even help an individual adhere to their fasting regimen (whether intermittent fasting, cultural, or other versions of a fast) even better because the higher nutrient density of their meals, the easier it is to make it from one eating timepoint to the next!

Your Guide to Balanced Nutrition

So, what does a balanced diet look like? It consists of a combination of meals or snacks with a variety of foods from several different food groups, especially fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and foods with protein. These foods are nutrient-rich and contain the most important macronutrients and micronutrients. 

Macronutrients are carbohydrates (including fiber and starch), fats, and protein, and while individual macronutrient needs may vary – everyone needs a substantial amount of these macronutrients – especially if fasting. Macronutrients are the basic components in every diet, whether you are fasting, on a specific diet plan, or are eating otherwise. 

Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, which are also essential for a healthy, balanced diet, but you need much less of these compared to the macronutrients. It cannot be emphasized enough that balanced nutrition must not be overlooked, especially when on a fasting plan.

The Most Important Food Groups for a Healthy Diet

Remember, a healthy, balanced diet consists of a variety of foods, including protein sources. 

Some examples of foods that are high in protein are:

  • Meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Legumes.

Foods that are high in protein and fiber, like beans, nuts, and legumes, will be beneficial to any diet, especially any type of fasting diet, because they will help you feel satiated (full) for longer periods of time, allowing you to stick to your fasting plan day to day. Eating a balanced diet entails having as many food groups as possible on your plate for each meal, but it doesn’t just stop there. It also considers the total calorie intake, so making lower-calorie choices will provide a benefit in the long run, especially when fasting.

And of course, don’t forget to drink water, which plays a part in the improved insulin sensitivity found with traditional intermittent fasting [4]. Water is a major component of our everyday fluid intake and is necessary for our body’s normal function. In addition, an increased amount of water included in your daily routine, especially if in a fasting state, is often at the expense of sweetened caloric beverages, which are associated with lower energy intake [5].

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is 3.7 liters (125 ounces) per day for men and 2.7 liters (91 ounces) per day for women [6]. It is estimated that you get nearly 20% of the water you need from food, with fruits and vegetables offering high quantities and a fast solution when out of the house. [7] As this is the case when fasting, you must ensure you pay attention to your water intake during your fasting window as you won’t be getting any water from your food during these fasts.

Balanced Diet Benefits

The fastest and easiest way to understand why it is important to daily life (whether as part of a fasting diet, or caloric-restriction diet) is to see how each food group provides a benefit to your body by looking at the macronutrients. Micronutrients can be found in food products that contain high amounts of macronutrients, as well as supplements for those who need additional daily intake amounts for their specific diet or fast.
 

 Protein  Found throughout the body as part of skin, muscle, bones, and enzymes that power almost every biochemical reaction in your body from digesting food to athletic performance. Protein can be found in high quantities in meats, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, legumes, and soy products.
 Fat  Essential for energy, cell growth, and proper body temperature regulation. Fats are incorporated into cell membranes and are essential for helping the body absorb vitamins such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats can be found in meats, fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, and oils.
 Carbohydrates  The human body’s most preferred energy source and an essential component of our genetic material, DNA. Carbs can be found in forms such as sugars, fiber, and starch, and in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Healthy Balanced Diet to Lose Weight

Any eating plan, fasting or otherwise, that helps to manage your weight must include a variety of healthy foods. “Eating the rainbow” is a strategy that entails having many colorful items on your plate, from green leafy vegetables, orange, and red fruits, and lean protein from meats, nuts, and legumes, while limiting high-calorie and high-added sugar or -fat items. [8] The USDA’s MyPlate website is a great resource to plan out your meals, especially if you adhere to specific diets or fasts [9]. While fasting is a great opportunity to decrease your caloric intake and help you make better choices, including a balanced diet will help optimize your fast, and allow you to more comfortably move from fasting window to fasting window while giving your body the daily nutrition it needs to perform at its best.

References

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
  2. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/about-dietary-guidelines/purpose-dietary-guidelines
  3. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/most-popular-questions
  4. Sutton, Elizabeth F., et al. "Early time-restricted feeding improves insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and oxidative stress even without weight loss in men with prediabetes." Cell metabolism 27.6 (2018): 1212-1221.
  5. Stookey, Jodi D., et al. "Replacing sweetened caloric beverages with drinking water is associated with lower energy intake." Obesity 15.12 (2007): 3013-3022.
  6. https://www.nap.edu/read/10925/chapter/1
  7. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/healthy-eating/how-much-water-do-you-need
  8. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/index.html
  9. https://www.myplate.gov/myplate-plan
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