When I was young, the focus was on making sure we ate our fruit and vegetables. Schools served square pizza at lunchtime, and there was uproar over people trying to take away our turkey twizzlers. Fast forward a ‘few’ years, and here I am, a committed vegan who only really eats fruits and veggies. And pizza. And the occasional bowl of vegan ice cream.
When I became vegan, a lot of the people around me were concerned that I would immediately become malnourished because I wouldn’t be eating a ‘balanced diet’. Those words are thrown around a lot - by biology teachers, the NHS, and people on the news. But the majority of the information is still largely based on a diet that includes animal products and is, occasionally, conflicting.
In a world where plant-based diets and vegan lifestyles are entering the mainstream, it seems like a good idea to re-examine the idea of a balanced diet. What it means for those of us who deliberately exclude certain products for ethical or health reasons, and how we can make sure that we are doing right by our bodies as well as our minds and morals. In this guide, we’ll be taking an overview of:
- What is a balanced diet?
- Why is it important?
- What happens if you don’t have a balanced diet?
- How to eat a balanced vegan diet
What is a balanced diet?
The important thing to remember is that the human body needs certain nutrients to be healthy and continue to function. To get these, you’ve got to eat a wide variety of food groups, and sometimes take supplements or multinutrients as an aide to better nutrition.
The body requires a number of different types of food to function:
- Carbohydrates: These are the body’s main energy source. The body breaks carbs down into glucose which is then used to fuel our cells, tissues and organs. Carbohydrates are found in whole grains, starches, fibres and sugars, such as potatoes, rice and whole grains. When carbs aren’t available to the body for energy, fat becomes the preferred source. This is why people who are trying to lose weight will often lower their intake of carbohydrates so that the body gains energy from fat reserves instead.
- Fat: The body needs small amounts of healthy fats as a source of essential fatty acids, which we cannot make ourselves. Some of the vitamins we need are also fat soluble, and without it we wouldn’t be able to get enough of these vitamins. However, there are some fats which are not beneficial for the body, with the World Health Organisation stating that our total fat intake should not exceed 30% of our daily diet, with saturated fats being less than 10% and trans fats being 1% or less. Avocados and dark chocolate are both sources of healthy fats - remember, the less processed an item is, the more nutritional value it's likely to hold!
- Protein: Our body needs protein to build and repair muscles, and to make sure that children and adolescents grow and develop correctly. Nuts, beans, lentils and seeds are all excellent sources of healthy protein.
- Vitamins & Minerals: These are needed to ensure that our body can repair itself and continue to function. Whilst the majority of vitamins and minerals are abundant in a plant-based diet, some like Vitamin B12 are harder to come by, and may require supplementation to prevent deficiency.
We also need to consider energy balance when thinking about a balanced diet. The number of calories you take in should be roughly equal to the amount you exert day to day. The number of calories in food refers to the amount of energy it stores. You may think that calories are only used when we exert ourselves, but even breathing and thinking uses energy. The number of calories any individual needs is dependent on factors such as age, weight and sex, along with activity level. It is recommended that the average woman takes in 2,000 calories a day, with the average man needing 2,500. However, those with actively demanding lifestyles should be looking for a higher caloric intake to balance out the calories lost through lifestyle. The sedentary person needs fewer calories than the more active one.
Foods which contain a lot of calories, but have very little nutritional value are known as ‘empty’ calories. This includes highly processed foods, refined grains and sugars, and foods with a high glycemic index (foods with a high carbohydrate level that break down rapidly into glucose and cause a ‘sugar rush’).
Why is it important?
In short, a balanced diet is important because your body needs the correct levels of nutrition in order to function effectively. Those of us with poor diets, or who rely too heavily on one food group, may find that we are more prone to illness.
It is not necessarily the foods you consume, although I do advocate a whole foods plant based diet (except for the occasional treat day), but what they contain that’s important. It’s the ‘you are what you eat’ adage all over again. A highly processed item of food is likely to be less beneficial for you in the nutrition department than its whole foods counterpart. So a homemade pizza with fresh ingredients and lots of veggies will provide more nutrition than its ready made rival.
These ‘empty calories’ just don’t provide us with the right nutrients or leave us feeling full, which means more snacking and may lead to poor eating habits over time. Limiting foods with added sugar, refined grains and trans fats can certainly help to ensure that we are tipping the scales in favour of the beneficial, but the healthier our consumption, the more beneficial the effects will be.
A healthy diet prevents diseases and infections, helps you to control your weight and improve your mental health.
In child development, a balanced diet full of healthy fats and whole foods can help to make sure that cells are built in the right way, and that the pace of growth is maintained into adulthood.
What happens if you don’t have a balanced diet?
Bad eating habits can contribute to stress, tiredness and the onset of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes. It can also be a factor of tooth decay, so those checkups at the dentist can often tell you something about your nutrition as well as your flossing technique!
Poor nutrition can lead to serious illness, especially if undetected or untreated for a longer period of time. With that in mind, there are some common symptoms of malnutrition which, if caught early, can prevent a worsening condition.
Signs of poor nutrition can include fatigue, poor concentration and a lack of motivation, as your body has fewer resources to work with and it’s harder to perform tasks. This lack of nutrients is also apparent in our hair, which can become dry and brittle over time, and in our nails which may develop ridges or start to become spoon shaped. This is often linked with an iron deficiency, so try eating more of those leafy greens.
It’s not just your physicality that can suffer as a result of a poor diet, it can often have a negative effect on mental health. For example, a deficiency in folic acid can be seen to increase feelings of apathy and irritability, with symptoms of depression and anxiety also being common.
Your mouth can also provide you with warnings about your diet and any deficiencies that might be lurking unnoticed. A swollen or smooth tongue and the sensation of burning (aptly called burning mouth syndrome) is often an indicator of a deficiency in B Vitamins, whilst a condition known as angular cheilitis, where the corners of the mouth are sore and cracked can be an indicator that you aren’t getting enough riboflavin in your diet. Riboflavin is also a B Vitamin, and can be found in green veg, mushrooms, and almonds.
Diets which contain a lot of unhealthy fats and highly processed foods can also lead to high cholesterol, heart disease, strokes and a condition called atherosclerosis, which is where the arteries become clogged with plaque, making it harder for your blood to circulate and sometimes causing heart attacks.
Bruising, a lack of appetite and persistent dry skin are all linked to poor diet or a deficiency in certain key nutrients. It might be that you need to speak with a doctor to determine if any symptoms you are experiencing are diet related.
How do you eat a balanced vegan diet?
In the same way as any other diet, a poorly planned and executed vegan diet may be lacking in certain key nutrients. However, a whole food plant-based diet containing fortified foods and perhaps a multinutrient should give you everything you need to stay healthy and well rounded.
As a vegan, you’ll need to make sure that you are getting enough protein, B12 and Omega 3, since these are typically sourced from animal products. There are alternatives available, however. Seitan, tofu and lentils are all good sources of protein, whilst yeast extracts and fortified plant milks provide a good source of B12. Omega 3 is actually produced by algae, not fish, so vegan omega 3 supplements are readily available.
Since a vegan diet involves the complete elimination of animal products as a source of nutrition, there is a heavier reliance on whole foods, such as grains, nuts, seeds and the ubiquitous fruits and vegetables. This can lead to a higher concentration of certain vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet, which are harder to get hold of for people who eat a lot of animal products. Vegan diets may also be higher in iron, coming from leafy greens like spinach.
Another benefit of a balanced vegan diet is that it can help to lower blood sugar levels and improve kidney function, as well as an increased consumption of legumes typical of a vegan diet may help to protect against certain types of cancer - this is also because this kind of diet doesn't contain highly processed meat products that are smoked or cooked at high temperatures and may well assist in the development of certain cancers.
Whole foods are the most nutrient dense, and therefore provide your body with a greater percentage of what you need. However, you might also need to look at fortified cereals and plant-based milks for those vitamins, such as B12 and iodine, which do not come easily to a plant based diet. You can also try taking a vegan multivitamin to support your diet, providing essential nutrients or, to round out your diet even further, try WHOLE, Vivo Life’s nutritional shake which not only gives you a boost of 20g of protein, it also provides 22 essential vitamins and minerals along with fatty acids.
It seems as though the saying ‘you are what you eat’ isn’t just something your mum said when you wanted a fourth helping of ice cream, it’s a good reminder that what we put in our bodies is what it has to work with to keep us healthy. Healthy food helps deliver a healthier you.