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What does following a ‘balanced diet’ really mean?

Balanced diet feature image

Balance is a word you encounter a lot as you work to create a healthier lifestyle, lose weight and build a better body.

You’ll hear about the need to balance exercise with recovery; balance life commitments with training commitments; balance life stress and training stress; balance blood sugar; and, most importantly, the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet.

The problem is that the term ‘balanced’ tends to be incongruent with the advice we’re often given in this regard.

Conflicting advice

Take, for instance, conventional dietary guidelines released by the Food and Nutrition Board, a sub-group of the Institute of Medicine, which suggests that acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDR) comprise:

  • 45-65% carbohydrates
  • 20-35% fat
  • 10-35% protein.

That’s hardly a balanced diet by anyone’s standards .

Further complicating the debate has been the rise in popularity of low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diets, which generally advise a macronutrient ratio of 60-75% of calories from fat, 15-30% of protein-derived calories, and just 5-10% from carbs.

Navigating contradictory info

It’s little wonder then that so many people trying to lose weight throw their hands up in exasperation at the contradictory information they’re bombarded with. But the confusion about balanced eating doesn’t end there.

Due to the trends of food abundance, misleading food labelling and modern food culture, we’ve also lost touch with our sense of portion control.

And there’s another bit of conventional modern dietary advice for which we’ve passed the use-by date, and that’s the concept that balanced eating requires every food group to be included on a plate at every sitting.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the pictures that represent a ‘balanced’ plate of food, with the correct portions of colourful and natural vegetables, a serving of protein, a serving of starchy carbohydrates and a portion of fat.

Hormonal response

Well, for most people that advice can be counterproductive, regardless of what your total daily macronutrient ratios are because it completely ignores the hormonal response to meals with this composition, particularly the impact of insulin.

Insulin is a powerful hormone that is closely linked to how much fat we store. It, therefore. pays to understand the role this hormone plays in the fat-loss process and to work to manage its effects, primarily through healthy and, yes, balanced, eating, but just not in the conventional sense.

Insulin is released in response to increased glucose in the bloodstream and can promote fat storage. That’s because, when we eat carbs, we increase insulin levels, which works to remove glucose from the blood by either pulling glucose into muscle cells or the liver, where it’s stored as glycogen, or into fat cells.

Glucose overload

The more glucose we dump into our bodies, and the frequency of these ‘dumps’, will have a material impact on how much of the food we eat gets stored as fat rather than burnt for fuel, as it can ‘shut off’ the effects of other hormones that promote the metabolism of fat for energy.

That’s right, in the presence of insulin, the body preferentially stores what we eat, be it glucose, amino acids or fatty acids. So, if you’re constantly spiking glucose by including carbs in every meal, you’ll get a dose-dependant rise in insulin, which is more pronounced when we eat high glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates in the form of processed and refined carbs and sugar.

What’s more is that, over time, the excess consumption of carbohydrates, particularly these refined and processed varieties and sugar, blunts the insulin sensitivity of the receptors in our muscles and liver.

This eventually lead to insulin resistance, where more and more insulin is secreted by the pancreas to elicit the required response. Eventually this overwhelms this endocrine system and we develop type-2 diabetes as the body is no longer able to self-regulate blood glucose due to a shut-down in insulin production.

Restoring hormonal balance

Thankfully, to restore hormonal balance and aid your weight-loss efforts, you don’t have to cut carbs completely – a hallmark of an unbalanced diet.

Simply reducing the number of meals that contain carbs each day, cutting out all refined carbs and sugar, and eating most, if not all of your carbs after your training sessions (known as carb backloading) can help to reduce the amount of fat you store, while also promoting greater fat loss as your body is more likely to tap into fat reserves during the day for the energy it needs.

You’ll also reduce your body’s propensity to store excess calories as fat around your midsection after your other meals. That’s why the concept of nutrient timing is often just as important than macronutrient ratios, especially when weight loss is the primary goals.

In simple terms, someone can consume their prescribed 40% of carbohydrates (if we’re really trying to achieve balance) during one or two meals of the day, along with some of their daily protein intake (which should make up about 30% of a balanced diet), with the remainder consumed with their 30% of healthy (natural) fat intake during the other meals of the day.

Understanding nutrient timing

This principle of nutrient timing is based on the biology and physiology of the human body, because, during periods of heightened acute insulin sensitivity – like when you wake up and after exercise – your body is more efficient at using glucose to fuel tissue repair and replenish depleted energy stores.

Outside of these periods of heightened insulin sensitivity, spiking insulin has the potential to increase fat storage and blunt fat metabolism. This means that by knowing when is the best time to eat the right combination of macronutrients, you can boost your weight-loss efforts by keeping hormonally-driven fat-loss processes ‘turned on’ for longer, while still fuelling muscle repair and recovery to boost your metabolism.

In the context of balanced eating, the growing consensus is that you don’t need to eat carbs at every meal. Some would argue that you don’t even have to eat carbs every day, depending on your activity levels, as long as you meet your macronutrient requirements over the course of a week by consuming more carbs on days when your energy demands are greater – a concept known as carb cycling.

Ultimately, some form of carb restriction and/or manipulation will greatly assist in restoring your insulin sensitivity and boost the effects of your training and exercise programme aimed at aid weight loss and body recomposition. And this can’t be achieved when the conventional wisdom of including carbs in every meal is followed.

Quality also key

And, finally, in the context of balanced eating, special consideration should also be given to the source and quality of your macronutrient sources.

The protein component of your diet should ideally be derived from a combination of organically farmed animals, plant proteins and supplements, especially as protein helps to spare muscle tissue during periods of calorie restriction, and helps to repair muscle following intense training.

Your dominant sources of fat should also be predominantly derived from natural sources, with up to 10% of your intake from saturated fat, with the remainder comprised of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated plant fats. Avoid processed and manufactured fats and trans fats whenever possible.

In terms of carbohydrates, fibrous carbs from fresh fruit and vegetables should be the dominant source in your diet, with as little processed carbs and simple sugars in your eating plan as possible, if at all.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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