What exactly is a balanced meal? | alimentarium (2024)

A very common piece of nutrition advice around the world is to ‘eat a balanced diet.’ This seems like quite an easy idea today, where words like ‘carbohydrates’, ‘fibre’, ‘fructose’ and ‘omega-3fatty acids’ are now making their way into everyday conversation. In recent decades, scientific research has rapidly expanded the understanding of human nutrition, but this may make a healthy diet seem much more complicated than it used to be. How do we make sure we get enough–but not too much–of the seemingly endless numbers of nutrients out there?

The good news is it’s actually pretty simple. A balanced meal is a snapshot of a diet that covers the three core food groups. As seen on this portion plate, the balance is a quarter proteins, a quarter carbohydrates and half vegetables1.

Quick refresher:nutrient basics

There are six types of nutrients essential for survival:proteins, carbohydrates, lipids (fats), vitamins, minerals and water. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are macronutrients, ‘macro-’ meaning we require them in large amounts. These provide the body with energy, measured in kilojoules or kilocalories2. Vitamins and minerals are classed as micronutrients because they are only required in small amounts. Water is also an essential macronutrient, as the volume produced by the body through metabolic processes falls far short of the amount we lose every day through perspiration, urine, faeces and respiration.

Three core food groups

Despite cultural variations, food is always grouped according to the main functions of its key nutrients. Keeping it simple, most foodstuffs are put to one of three uses:energy, growth and repair, or maintaining healthy metabolic function. Depending how specific we want to be, foodstuffs can be further categorised in up to eight groups, which is why national dietary guidelines around the world may vary regarding the foodstuffs used, but remain very similar regarding overall nutrient needs3.

One quarter carbohydrate food for energy

Carbohydrate-rich food includes rice, pasta, quinoa, couscous, potatoes, bread, barley, oats and other cereals. These provide energy for the brain, muscles and other organs. Wholegrain carbohydrates are the preferred choice since they also provide fibre and vitaminB. Fibre is essential to keep your bowels working smoothly, and vitaminB allows the body to utilize the energy it received from carbohydrates. The more active we are, the more carbohydrates we require.

©Shutterstock/margouillat photo

One quarter protein food for growth and repair

Protein-rich food includes eggs, seafood, poultry, red meat, pulses, milk, yoghurt, cheese, tofu, nuts and insects. This group is vital for maintaining muscle tissue, red blood cells, and hormone and enzyme production. We need more of these kinds of food in periods of growth (i.e.childhood and adolescence) or physical illness. A lot of high-protein foodstuffs also contain fats and fat-soluble vitamins;fish and eggs are two good examples.

One half vegetables for a healthy metabolism

Vegetables (and other plants, such as pulses, fruit, nuts, seeds and herbs) are rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients4, such as antioxidants. Vitamins and minerals keep our metabolism and organs running efficiently, which is essential for staying healthy. A number of vitamins act as antioxidants. These repair tissue damage caused by metabolic processes or some environmental pollutants. Vegetables, herbs and fresh fruit are also satiating while relatively low in energy, meaning they help maintain a healthy weight. There can never be too many vegetables on the plate provided there is a variety.

Mixed meals and processed food

A balanced meal definitely does not need to be split up like the plate shown here. This is a guide to give an idea of the proportions of each food group that make up an ideal meal. It also does not mean every meal needs to look like this! If some days we eat more or less of a food group, it can still be balanced out over the week.

Processed food, such as chocolate, cake, chips, biscuits,etc., can be part of a healthy and balanced diet too, in moderation of course. The key is to remember they all are part of the same food group, whatever we call it:treats, junk food, sometimes food, unhealthy food, snacks,etc. Eating lots of different kinds of ‘treats’ still adds up to lots of treats. The more of this kind of food we eat, the more likely we are to either neglect more nutritious food or consume unnecessary kilocalories.

A few other important considerations

Food containing fibre and/or protein increases satiety, keeping us feeling fuller for longer. This means we are less likely to be tempted by readily accessible and conveniently packaged food, such as sweets, chocolates, crackers and cheese, crisps or an ice cream an hour after your meal. Including protein and fibre at main meals promotes better eating patterns, which would support long-term weight maintenance. High-fibre food includes wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables, particularly the skins.

Herbs and spices make wonderful additions to any dish. They provide lots of micronutrients, almost no kilocalories, and a delicious flavour lift to even the most basic meals.

Protein is the main nutrient for growth and repair, but calcium is essential to bone and muscle health too–and is the reason dairy products are often given their own food group. Milk, yoghurt and cheese are well-known sources, but plenty of other types of food boast a boost of calcium too:tofu and soya-bean products, calcium-fortified non-dairy milk, pak choi, kale, collard, almonds, broccoli and the soft bones of cooked fish such as sardines.

Healthy eating does not need to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn’t be! Using the principles of¼+¼+½, any meal can nourish your wellbeing. It’s much easier and healthier than restrictive diets and unbalanced fads–I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about.


1. The most popular portion plates (editor’s note: a representation of a balanced meal) include fruit in this section as well. Nutritionally speaking, fruit and vegetables are pretty similar in that they both contain lots of vitamins, fibre and water. In a dietary sense, fruit is much easier to eat as a snack rather than include in the main meal, which is why I have labelled this category simply ‘vegetables’.
2. TheUSandUKmeasure energy from food and drink in calories(although the correct term is actually ‘kilocalories’), while most other countries use kilojoules. To convert between the two,1calorie=4.18kilojoules, or1kilojoule=0.24calories.
3. Visit the Food and Agricultural Organization website to explore dietary guidelines around the world, or visit the Body sector in the Alimentarium in Vevey!; http://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/home/
4. Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are substances found naturally in plants and are not essential for life like other nutrients, but offer additional health benefits for disease prevention.
[Links visited on 03.04.2017]


SEMBA, RD,2012.The Discovery of Vitamins, Int.J.Vitam.Nutru.Res.82(5),pp.310-315.

What exactly is a balanced meal? | alimentarium (2024)


What exactly is a balanced meal? | alimentarium? ›

The good news is it's actually pretty simple. A balanced meal is a snapshot of a diet that covers the three core food groups. As seen on this portion plate, the balance is a quarter proteins, a quarter carbohydrates and half vegetables1.

What is considered a balanced meal? ›

The more veggies — and the greater the variety — the better. Potatoes and French fries don't count. Choose fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; limit red meat and cheese; avoid bacon, cold cuts, and other processed meats. Eat a variety of whole grains (like whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice).

What are examples of balance meals? ›

30-Minute Balanced Meal Ideas
  • Easy Salmon & Avocado Salad. ...
  • Pan-Fried Pork Chops with Smashed Potatoes & Spinach Salad. ...
  • Tuna, Caper & Fresh Tomato Linguine. ...
  • Thai Green Curry Beef Stir-Fry. ...
  • Easy Spicy Pho with Bacon. ...
  • Roast Fish & Mediterranean-Inspired Vegetables. ...
  • Pan-Fried Salmon with Lentil-Carrot Salad.

What are the 7 things you need in a balanced diet? ›

By having an idea of the balance in your diet, it should be easier to enjoy food and be healthy. There are seven essential factors for a balanced diet: carbs, protein, fat, fibre, vitamins, minerals and water. The rough percentage of daily calories that should come from each factor is shown in Table 10.

What is the difference between a healthy meal and a balanced meal? ›

Summary. Eating a wide variety of healthy foods helps to keep you in good health and protects you against chronic disease. Eating a well-balanced diet means eating a variety of foods from each of the 5 food groups daily, in the recommended amounts.

What does a healthy dinner look like? ›

The basics of a healthy dinner are the same as lunch. Your late meal should be about 500-550 calories, it should contain sources of fiber and protein as well as some healthy fat. Your dinner should include at least three food groups, and it should be limited in saturated fats and simple sugars.

What should a balanced dinner plate look like? ›

Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit, a quarter with whole grain foods and a quarter with protein foods. Check out Canada's Food Guide resources to learn more about food choices and eating habits. And learn how to choose your portion sizes using our guide below!

What is the most nutritionally perfect meal? ›

Well-planned, healthy meal plans should always include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat or fat-free and unsweetened dairy products, unsalted nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, eggs, lean meat, and heart-healthy, plant-based oils. Helpful tips: ✔ Fill half your plate with vegetables and some fruits.

Is pizza a balanced meal? ›

One or two slices of pizza can fit into a nutritious, balanced meal. But eating pizza to the point that you are overly stuffed can result in you consuming way too many calories, which may contribute to weight gain over time.

What should be avoided in a balanced diet? ›

Foods to Avoid or Limit
  • Highly processed foods.
  • Refined grains.
  • Refined sugars.
  • Sweetened drinks.
  • Red and processed meats.
  • Saturated and trans fats.
  • High-glycemic foods.

What foods should you eat daily? ›

Eating a balanced diet
  • eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day (see 5 A Day)
  • base meals on higher fibre starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta.
  • have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks)
  • eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein.

How to make a balanced meal? ›

How To Build a Healthy, Balanced Meal
Oct 11, 2021

What does a balanced breakfast look like? ›

Include a lean protein such as peanut butter, nuts (walnuts, almonds), Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or eggs. This will keep you fuller longer in the morning and stabilize blood sugar levels during digestion. Don't forget to add in fruits and vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and extra fiber.

How to get all nutrients in one meal? ›

You can follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate guidelines to build a nutritionally balanced meal — vegetables, fruit, grains, and protein should each comprise about a quarter of your plate. Incorporate one serving of dairy if you wish.

Which meal is the most balanced? ›

The most well-balanced meal among the options is. Whole wheat bread, apple, low-fat milk, salad, and low-fat meat. This meal incorporates a variety of food groups, providing a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.

What is an example of an unbalanced meal? ›

If your diet consists of a good mix of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and some form of protein, then it's likely that you're eating a healthy and balanced diet. If, however, your diet consists of potato chips and cookies, you're definitely eating an imbalanced (unbalanced) diet.

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