Nutrition 101: Balance, Variety, and Moderation

Balance, variety, and moderation have been referenced in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans for decades. Yet overtime, the ambiguity of these terms has clouded their importance and left their meaning open for interpretation—often misinterpretation.

“Everything in moderation.”

“It’s all about balance.”

“I eat a variety of foods… well, a variety of ice-cream flavors!”

Many times, these words are used to justify our food choices or make us feel better when our diet is not 100% nutritious… Not anymore! Instead of using these words to rationalize our eating habits (which is completely unnecessary and counterproductive), let’s talk about how these nutrition concepts can be interpreted with a more intuitive and flexible approach to healthy eating.


Variety

Fruits and vegetables are usually the food groups that we focus on when talking about variety in our diet. However, variety is encouraged among the major food groups and within all of the food groups.

Besides making meals more colorful, eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy, proteins, and grains provides a wider range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, prebiotics, and probiotics—keeping our heart, mind, skin, eyes, and gut functioning optimally. Varying protein with a combination of eggs, dairy, legumes, grains, and nuts is especially important for vegetarians to receive adequate amounts of all essential amino acids.

In addition to the benefits at the biochemical level, a varied diet can also make eating more satisfying and flexible. While it can be easy to rely on your food staples for meals, introducing new ingredients can bring attention back to the flavor and enjoyment of eating, preventing you from eating on autopilot. Swap out an apple for a grapefruit or peach; have turkey or fish in place of chicken; substitute barley or quinoa for pasta. Choosing local and seasonal foods can also help to incorporate a variety of foods depending on the time of year. Giving yourself permission to eat a variety of foods within all food groups can also be freeing, helping to overcome rigid eating habits and food rules and appreciate the range of foods that satisfy your hunger and cravings.

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Moderation

Sweets, fatty meats, fried food, fast food, soda… these are all foods recommended to “eat in moderation,” or limit, in some cases. Whether it is unwanted weight gain or increased risk of type 2 diabetes, the negative health effects of eating excess added sugars and solid fats have been identified in the literature. However, cutting out sugary and fatty foods completely can be just as damaging for our emotional health, leaving us disconnected from friends and family and preoccupied with thoughts about food. Food is a huge part of our culture; it’s social, celebratory, and meant to be enjoyed in good company. That’s why moderation—not restriction or overindulgence—is the secret to healthy, happy eating habits.

But, what does moderation really mean? Technically, the most recent dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day, saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories per day, and trans fat to as little as possible. Realistically, this may translate into having more added sugars one day (i.e. when you’re eating cake at a family birthday party), and having more saturated fat another day (i.e. when you’re eating pizza with friends on a weekend).

Moderation is about being open to day-to-day variations in your diet depending on your appetite, cravings, and activity level. Sometimes a big bowl of ice-cream is just want you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, other times a small square of chocolate may be enough to keep sweet cravings at bay. Savoring the flavor of these calorie-dense foods and becoming aware of how your body responds to them can help to determine what “eating in moderation” means for you.

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Balance

Out of all three of these terms, balance probably has the most interpretations. A balanced diet is often defined as a balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat within the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges set by the Institute of Medicine. A balanced meal, on the other hand, refers to a balance of food groups consistent with MyPlate or Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate: fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one fourth with lean protein, and one fourth with whole grains. Together, creating a balance of food groups and macronutrients can make meals and snacks more filling (from the protein and fiber) and provide more sustained energy (from then carbohydrates in whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables).

Beyond balance within our food choices, energy balance looks more broadly at the balance between energy intake (calories from food) and energy expenditure (calories used for exercise and metabolic processes). Energy balance is associated with weight maintenance, while energy imbalance can contribute to weight loss or weight gain. However, this concept is often oversimplified because energy expenditure cannot be precisely calculated since many factors like the stress, hormones, genetics, and gut microbiota (bacteria in our digestive tract) can alter how we metabolize nutrients. For example, chronic stress can lead to high levels of cortisol, which signals the body to store fat, contributing to weight gain. In contrast, a diverse composition of gut microbiota may enhance metabolism and promote weight loss, according to preliminary research.

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Considering the multiple factors influencing our metabolism, listening to our bodies’ hunger and fullness cues can guide healthy food choices better than relying on calculated formulas and food trackers. Creating balance, variety, and moderation in our diets can help to build more filling and satisfying meals that meet nutritional needs, while preserving the joy and connection that food brings to our lives.

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Note: This article was also published in the Friedman Sprout.

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