Sure, a balanced diet focuses on healthy foods, but that doesn't mean you only eat lettuce and carrots. The purpose of a balanced diet is so that you get all the energy and nutrients you need for your body to function properly, with a little room for small indulgences. Knowing the seven factors that make up a balanced diet can help steer you in the right direction.
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Grains for Energy
Grains are a good source of carbohydrates, your body's preferred source of energy. Grain food choices include bread, pasta and cereal. The amount of grains you should eat each day depends on your calorie needs but ranges from five to 10 servings a day. The publication "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010" recommends that at least half your grain choices be whole grain, which means whole-wheat bread instead of white. Whole grains are good source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium and fiber.
Fruits are low in calories and rich in fiber, potassium, vitamins A and C and folate. Adults need 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of fruit a day. While 100-percent fruit juice counts as a fruit, most of the fruit servings in your diet should come from whole fruit, according to "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." Juice is not a good source of fiber, and if you drink too much, it can cause you to consume too many calories.
Fill Up on Vegetables
Like fruits, vegetables are also low in calories and a good source of essential nutrients you need for good health, including fiber, vitamins A, C and K, potassium and magnesium. Depending on your individual calorie needs, a balanced diet should include 2 to 4 cups of vegetables a day. To vary your nutrient intake, include different types of vegetables throughout the week, such as dark-green, red and orange vegetables, as well as starchy vegetables and beans.
Protein for Rebuilding
Protein is an essential nutrient that helps build and repair tissue. Although protein is found in a number of different types of foods, the primary source of protein in your diet comes from meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, soy foods, nuts and seeds. You need 5 to 7 ounces of protein each day for a balanced diet. Like vegetables, your sources of protein need to be varied to improve the nutritional quality of your diet.
Your Bones Need Dairy
Dairy and dairy alternatives provide calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein. Making sure you get enough dairy in your diet can improve bone health, according to "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010." Adults need 3 cups of low-fat or nonfat milk products a day on a balanced diet. One cup of nonfat yogurt and 1 1/2 ounces of low-fat cheese are equal to 1 cup of milk. Fortified soy beverages also count as milk products.
Oils are not a food group, but they are an important part of a balanced diet because they are a source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats, when used to replace foods high in saturated fat such as butter, help lower blood cholesterol levels. A balanced diet should include 27 grams of oil a day. Healthy oils include olive, soy and sunflower oil.
A Little Room for Treats
While it's important that most of your calories come from healthy foods, a balanced diet also includes a few calories for treats. USDA dietary guidelines allow for a small percentage of your daily calorie intake, 9 percent to 15 percent, to be foods with added fat and sugar, such as cakes and cookies. Ideally, however, these calories should be kept as low as possible since they are not good sources of nutrients.