Balanced diet guide

A balanced diet includes foods from the five groups and fulfills all of a person’s nutritional needs. Eating a balanced diet helps people maintain good health and reduce their risk of disease.

Dietary guidelines evolve with scientific advances, so it can be challenging to stay on top of current recommendations and know what to eat.

In this article, we look at current dietary recommendations and describe how to build a balanced diet.

What is a balanced diet?

vegetables are part of a balanced diet
Eating a balanced diet will help a person stay healthy.

A balanced diet is one that fulfills all of a person’s nutritional needs. Humans need a certain amount of calories and nutrients to stay healthy.

A balanced diet provides all the nutrients a person requires, without going over the recommended daily calorie intake.

By eating a balanced diet, people can get the nutrients and calories they need and avoid eating junk food, or food without nutritional value.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) used to recommend following a food pyramid. However, as nutritional science has changed, they now recommend eating foods from the five groups and building a balanced plate.

According to the USDA’s recommendations, half of a person’s plate should consist of fruits and vegetables.

The other half should be made up of grains and protein. They recommend accompanying each meal with a serving of low-fat dairy or another source of the nutrients found in dairy.

The 5 food groups

A healthful, balanced diet includes foods from these five groups:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • grains
  • protein
  • dairy

Vegetables

The vegetable group includes five subgroups:

  • leafy greens
  • red or orange vegetables
  • starchy vegetables
  • beans and peas (legumes)
  • other vegetables, such as eggplant or zucchini

To get enough nutrients and keep dietary boredom at bay, people should choose a variety of vegetables.

Additionally, the USDA recommends that people eat vegetables from each of the five subgroups every week.

People may enjoy vegetables raw or cooked. However, it is important to remember that cooking vegetables remove some of their nutritional value. Also, some methods, such as deep-frying, can add unhealthful fats to a dish.

Fruits

A balanced diet also includes plenty of fruit. Instead of getting fruit from juice, nutrition experts recommend eating whole fruits.

Juice contains fewer nutrients. Also, the manufacturing process often adds empty calories due to added sugar. People should opt for fresh or frozen fruits, or fruits canned in water instead of syrup.

Grains

cooked quinoa on fork part of balance diet
Whole grains usually contain more protein than refined grains.

There are two subgroups: whole grains and refined grains.

Whole grains include all three parts of the grain, which are the bran, germ, and endosperm. The body breaks down whole grains slowly, so they have less effect on a person’s blood sugar.

Additionally, whole grains tend to contain more fiber and protein than refined grains.

Refined grains are processed and do not contain the three original components. Refined grains also tend to have less protein and fiber, and they can cause blood sugar spikes.

Grains used to form the base of the government-approved food pyramid, meaning that most of a person’s daily caloric intake came from grains. However, the updated guidelines suggest that grains should make up only a quarter of a person’s plate.

At least half of the grains that a person eats daily should be whole grains. Healthful whole grains include:

  • quinoa
  • oats
  • brown rice
  • barley
  • buckwheat

Protein

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that all people should include nutrient-dense protein as part of their regular diet.

The guidelines suggest that this protein should make up a quarter of a person’s plate.

Nutritious protein choices include:

  • lean beef and pork
  • chicken and turkey
  • fish
  • beans, peas, and legumes

Dairy

Dairy and fortified soy products are a vital source of calcium. The USDA recommends consuming low-fat versions whenever possible.

Low-fat dairy and soy products include:

  • ricotta or cottage cheese
  • low-fat milk
  • yogurt
  • soy milk

People who are lactose intolerant can opt for low-lactose or lactose-free products, or choose soy-based sources of calcium and other nutrients.

Losing weight

walking up stairs
A person can burn calories by taking the stairs.

A poor diet is a common reason why people struggle with weight loss.

When combined with a regular exercise routine, a balanced diet can help a person reduce their risk factors for obesity or gaining weight.

A balanced diet can help a person lose weight by:

  • increasing their protein intake
  • avoiding excessive carbohydrates or processed foods
  • getting essential nutrients, including minerals, vitamins, and fiber
  • preventing binge eating

People interested in losing weight should begin or enhance an exercise routine.

For some people, adding 30 minutes of walking each day and making minor changes, such as taking the stairs, can help them burn calories and lose weight.

For those that can, adding moderate exercise that includes cardio and resistance training will help speed weight loss.

Summary

Eating a balanced diet means eating foods from the five major groups.

Dietary guidelines change over time, as scientists discover new information about nutrition. Current recommendations suggest that a person’s plate should contain primarily vegetables and fruits, some lean protein, some dairy, and soluble fiber.

People interested in weight loss should also consider introducing moderate exercise into their routines.

Cholesterol treatment guideline

The new Cholesterol guideline was published in November and is the result of a joint task force of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. The report was published in the journal Circulation.

Cholesterol moleculeFirst, a couple of caveats: Dietary supplements by law cannot claim to treat or prevent any illness. So to some degree, it makes sense that clinicians would not turn to them first to help patients who already have high cholesterol. Also, it should be noted that the guideline would be aimed first and foremost at specialists, who likely would be consulted only after a patient has been referred with a treatable condition.

Paucity of information on Cholesterol prevention

Nevertheless, it is telling that so little effort is spent in the guideline on discussing how to help patients to keep from crossing over the line into the treatment category, rather than spending page after page on how to fix the boat after it has sprung a leak. In the 120-page document, which includes 69 pages of actual text, only two short sections were devoted to lifestyle factors in the prevention of development of hyperlipidemia.

“Patients should consume a dietary pattern that emphasizes intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, healthy protein sources (low-fat dairy products, low-fat poultry (without the skin), fish/seafood, and nuts), and nontropical vegetable oils; and limits intake of sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats,” the guideline states.

One other section of the guideline addresses prevention specifically.

“Primary prevention of ASCVD over the life span requires attention to prevention or management of ASCVD risk factors beginning early in life,” the guideline states. It then refers the reader to a table that includes one statement about encouraging a healthy lifestyle and then devotes the rest of the information on statin therapy, starting as early as age 8.

Lipid ingredients, polyphenols shown to have effects

A number of dietary ingredients have been researched for their positive effects on blood lipid profiles including lipid ingredients and many plants and fruit extracts rich in phytochemicals.

Omega-3s, for example, have been shown to have positive effects on high triglyceride levels, but the effects on LDL cholesterol specifically are less clear-cut. Levels can actually increase slightly, but the size of the LDL particles changes as well, which is a good thing. And HDL (the “good” cholesterol) goes up, too, indicating a generally positive overall trend.

Extra virgin olive oil, which is rich is some polyphenolic compounds such as hydroxytyrosol, has been suggested to benefit blood lipid profiles via a multifaceted action that includes both anti-inflammatory aspects and the promotion of cholesterol efflux. Olive is, of course, one of the main components of the Mediterranean diet, which is frequently recommended for heart health.

Drug hits one target –  supplements hit many

But this multifactorial approach doesn’t fit neatly into the mostly drug-focused paradigm of the new guideline, said James Kennedy, Ph.D. president of ingredient supplier Polyphenolics, which has a line of grape seed extracts which are among the more comprehensively researched polyphenol-based ingredients on the market.

“There is no question that statins can dramatically reduce your blood cholesterol levels,” Kennedy told NutraIngredients-USA. “They absolutely can reduce cholesterol much further than any polyphenol from a fruit or vegetable.”

“But for me it’s about lifestyle first. It just struck me as odd that here is a group concerned about our heart health and they were pretty much exclusively recommending drugs,” he said.

Kennedy said that cardiovascular disease is a multifaceted condition. Statins target one aspect of this situation and hits that nail squarely on the head. But natural ingredients, perhaps especially when offered in combination, take a more comprehensive approach to the problem.

Polyphenolics offers a line of grape seed extracts that includes MegaNatural BP, which has been researched for its effect on supporting blood pressure in the healthy range. That effect takes into account the healthy flow dynamics of the circulatory system, something that a myopic focus on cholesterol numbers glosses over.

Evidence backing many polyphenols

Grape seed extracts are just one of many polyphenol-based ingredients on the market that have been researched for their benefits in ameliorating the risk factors of CVD.

grapes are recommended in low cholesterol diets

“If you look at cardiovascular disease as a whole, a lot of polyphenols – and grape seed extract in particular – address the various areas including blood pressure and blood glucose as well as hypercholesteremia. Our industry offers a food-first approach which makes sense to consumers. They look at supplementation as a complement to everything else they are doing to address all aspects of heart disease, not just one piece of it” Kennedy said.

The entourage effect implied by the research backing polyphenols (they all appear to do slightly different things) is now starting to be borne out by research. A recent study in the journal Nutrients showed that just two weeks on a polyphenol-poor diet could alter vascular biomarkers in a group of healthy men.

And a recent review article in the journal Molecules had this to say: “Consumption of polyphenols from plant extracts and fruits increases antioxidant levels in plasma which protect vasculature and improve anti-inflammatory and lipid profiles, blood pressure, HDL-C, and vascular function.”  The review focuses on a number of polyphenols and other naturally occurring compounds, including gallic acid and punicalagin from pomegranate.

Combo products increasing in popularity

Kennedy said there is increasing interest among supplement product formulators in taking advantage of the evidence supporting the multifactorial effects of polyphenols.

“We do come into contact with customers who say they want to put together a heart health formula and want to know what they can combine our grape seed extract with,” he said.

“Recently we had a customer who wanted to combine our grape seed extract with a blueberry extract and a bergamot extract. When you go into the store you frequently see our extract in formulation with other ingredients,” Kennedy said.

The beauty of the natural approach to heart health is these ingredients can be combined with virtually no concern about antagonistic interactions, Kennedy said. Polyphenolics has continually worked on its GRAS dossier, with higher and higher dosages proven to be safe, he said.

“For the most part these are natural products and they are not known to have any cross indications. With statins, you have to dial the dose in and the patient has to be monitored very carefully.”

 

Natural Sugar effects

The effects of natural sugarnatural sugar fructose such as fructose on human health have been the source of much controversy. This is due to the fact that there are different kinds of foods, some of which are bad for health.

Fructose is a natural sugar that is present in fruits, fruit juices, certain vegetables, and honey. In these forms, this natural sugar can be part of a healthy diet.

However, it is also a component of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which manufacturers make from cornstarch and add to unhealthy foods such as sodas and candies.

Researchers are studying the links between high-fructose foods and obesity, diabetes, and even some cancers. However, there is also some evidence that indicates that it is not necessarily a public health concern when a person consumes it in moderation.

In this article, we will cover whether fructose is bad for health, the different types of sugar, and the research into their effects on the human body.

What is the natural sugar fructose?

apples and honey natural sugar
Fructose is a natural sugar present in fruit and honey.

Fructose is the sweetest of the naturally occurring caloric sweeteners. It occurs naturally in fruits, fruit juices, honey, and even some vegetables.

In its pure form, it is much sweeter than other types of sugar. As a result, people can use less of it than other sugars in cooking to achieve the same sweetness.

The most significant sources of fructose in the diet include:

  • table sugar
  • honey
  • agave nectar
  • fruit juices
  • HFCS, which is present in candy, baked goods, and sodas, and other processed foods

Manufacturers create HFCS by adding certain enzymes to cornstarch, which is essentially pure glucose. Glucose is another type of sugar. They then use this glucose to create a syrup that contains varying amounts of fructose.

Most varieties of HFCS contain either 42 or 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. This means that HFCS contains the same amount of fructose as sucrose, or table sugar.

Manufacturers make table sugar from a combination of fructose and glucose.

Honey is another common food additive. Honey contains a 1-to-1 ratio of fructose to glucose.

Is fructose bad for you?

A natural sugar like fructose from fresh fruit and vegetables is good for a person’s health. Processed forms of fructose, such as HFCS, may have negative health effects. Scientists are currently studying how this type of sweetener compares with other forms of sugar.

Below, we discuss the research around the possible risks and benefits of fructose on a person’s health.

The evidence against fructose

woman pinching stomach
Consuming large amounts of fructose may put a person at greater risk of obesity.

Some researchers believe that the body processes fructose differently than other types of sugar.

In particular, there are concerns that when a person consumes fructose in excess, it may stimulate the body to deposit extra fat, especially in the liver. This may contribute to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

According to a 2017 literature review, eating excessive amounts of fructose is associated with:

  • inflammation that could lead to insulin resistance
  • increased development of fat, as it may alter the ways that the body breaks down fats and carbohydrates
  • a greater risk of obesity and related conditions, such as metabolic syndrome
  • greater food intake, as it does not make people feel full

A 2016 study looked at the effects of fructose-rich drink consumption in those aged 12–16 years in Taiwan. People who drank more fructose-rich drinks had higher levels of insulin resistance, which is a marker for hardened arteries, diabetes, and heart disease in adults.

The evidence for fructose

Although there is evidence that excess fructose consumption is bad for health, it is difficult for researchers to separate the effects of fructose in the diet from those of other sugars.

This is because foods that contain high levels of added fructose usually also contain high levels of other sugars, such as glucose. Scientists conduct many research studies on the effects of fructose in rats fed combinations of sugars.

A 2014 literature review states that fructose does not have specific effects on the body that can cause weight gain when compared with eating sugar from other sources.

The authors also argue that, while sugar-sweetened drinks contain fructose, they are also high in calories. This may explain some links between fructose and obesity.

To date, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that they are not currently aware of any evidence that foods containing HFCS are less safe than other foods containing similar sweeteners, such as sucrose and honey.

The FDA list HFCS, the most controversial of the fructose-containing foods, as safe to eat.

However, people should limit their intake of all added sugars, including HFCS and sucrose.

Fructose vs. glucose

Fructose can bind to glucose. Fructose plus glucose is called sucrose, or table sugar.

Unlike fructose, the body largely breaks glucose down in the cells. The small intestine usually absorbs this sugar type and sends it out to the body’s cells for energy. Researchers usually regard glucose as the body’s preferred carbohydrate source for energy.

When a person eats glucose, the chemical structure of the compound triggers the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that allows cells to use glucose for energy.

A natural sugar such as Fructose does not trigger insulin release, nor does it trigger the release of hormones such as leptin, which tells the brain that a person is full, or inhibit hormones that tell a person’s body that they are hungry.

As a result, researchers suggest that fructose is more harmful to a person because they are more likely to eat more than if they had eaten food containing glucose.

However, a person should remember that foods with glucose-containing sugars still have calories. Excess calorie intake can lead to weight gain.

Sources and types of fructose

young woman eating a pear
Pears are naturally high in fructose.

Two fructose types exist: naturally occurring and HFCS. The body digests both the same way.

Examples of natural foods that are naturally high in fructose include:

  • agave syrup
  • apple juice
  • apples
  • caramel
  • dry figs
  • honey
  • licorice
  • molasses
  • pears
  • prunes
  • sorghum

Some vegetables contain fructose, but this is usually in smaller amounts than fruits. These include:

  • asparagus
  • chicory roots
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • leeks
  • onions

Summary

Fructose is naturally present in many fruits and vegetables, which people can include as part of a healthful, balanced diet.

Researchers are still debating whether various forms of fructose are bad for people’s health. The FDA state that fructose is a safe ingredient to add to foods.

They believe that there is not enough evidence to say that fructose is less safe than other similar sugars, such as sucrose and honey, but they recommend limiting all added sugars.

When people eat or drink lots of high-fructose foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, they are also taking in extra calories that can contribute to weight gain.

There is no recommended minimum or maximum intake of fructose daily because a person does not need this sugar to survive. Manufacturers add fructose to foods as a sweetener, but it has little nutritional value.

Where possible, doctors recommend that people eat fresh, whole foods and avoid frequently eating foods with added sugars.