We all know by now that we are what we eat. Eat a diet abundant in colourful fruit and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats and you’re undoubtedly going to feel good. Eat fast food over and over and you’re likely to feel unhealthy and become obese.
But for many of us, we don’t actually know what a healthy, balanced meal looks like. The first meal that springs to mind is the dreaded salad -- but even a simple salad is missing important components for a healthy meal.
What are these main components for a balanced meal? Macronutrients.
“Macronutrients are what we call the bigger nutrients in our bodies,” accredited practising dietician Chloe McLeod told The Huffington Post Australia. “When we’re looking at macronutrients the key things we’re looking at are carbohydrates, fat and protein.”
Macronutrients are the energy-giving components of our foods and help our bodies to function properly. Micronutrients, on the other hand, are the essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals within these macronutrients.
Protein is the building block for brain cells, muscle, skin, hair and nails, and is found in meat and plant-based foods like legumes, seeds and grains.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for the brain, central nervous system and kidneys, and are found in grain foods such as bread, rice, quinoa, pasta, crackers and barley.
Although often underestimated (and avoided by people), healthy fats are vital to healthy body function.
“It’s definitely an important part of the plate,” McLeod said. “The fat component is really important for absorption of fat soluble vitamins -- if there’s no fat included in the meal at all, the fat soluble vitamins won’t be absorbed as easily.”
“An example would be vitamin K, which is a fat soluble micronutrient found in leafy greens. But if there’s no fat or very little fat in the meal, the vitamin K won’t be absorbed quite as well. Something like a few teaspoons of olive oil as a salad dressing helps to transport that.”
If the meals we eat are not macronutrient balanced, it can affect the way our bodies function.
“If you’re eating unbalanced meals, you’ll possibly gain or lose weight in an undesirable way,” McLeod said. “You might not feel as well or energetic as you can.”
This is a pitfall of low carb diets.
“A lot of the time when people are on those low carb diets, they find they are really low in energy, not sleeping well and can’t concentrate at work,” McLeod said. “Or maybe you’re not getting enough fat in there and it’s the same thing -- you may feel like you can’t concentrate so well.”
While this salad does have protein and fat, without a carbohydrate food like bread or quinoa, it's missing the important carbohydrate component.
Now we know the importance of macronutrients, how can we ensure our meals are balanced?
According to McLeod, although it depends on body composition goals, the general percentages to aim for are:
- Carbohydrates: 45-65 percent of calories
- Fat: 20-35 percent of calories
- Protein: 10-35 percent of calories
However, instead of focusing on percentages -- as these can often be confusing and counterproductive for people beginning to change their diet -- McLeod recommends using your plate as a guide.
“I prefer spending a bit more time looking at a portion plate and seeing how much of the plate is filled up with low starch vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, capsicum and zucchini), how much of it is filled with protein and how much of it is filled with carbohydrates,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia.
“The proportions I look for, for the average person, is for half the plate to be veggies, about a quarter of it protein and about a quarter of it carbs. They are the general amounts we look for.
“For most people whose plates look like that, it’s going to mean better health because you’re filling up on more of the lower energy foods and getting more of those micronutrients found more so in the vegetables.”
Wondering about the fat component?
"Some of the fat in a macronutrient balanced meal might be found in the meat -- say, if you’re having a piece of salmon or grass-fed steak which have healthy fat profiles, particularly the salmon," McLeod said.
"Otherwise, you could incorporate some nuts and seeds, olive oil or avocado to get fat in that way."
Another great guide to use are your hands.
“It’s a little bit corny, but you’ve always got your hands with you,” McLeod said.
“Aim for about a palm size of protein, a fist size of the carbohydrate and then two cupped hands of salad or vegetables that are lower starch.”
A classic balanced meal would be a fist size of sweet potato (carbohydrates), a palm size of a piece of fish or meat (protein and fat), and then two cupped hands of low starch vegetables.
“Another important thing to consider is that it does depend on your goals,” McLeod said. “If you’re training for a marathon, for example, the carbohydrates portion of your meal needs to be a bit bigger because your body is going to use more carbohydrates than someone who is sitting behind a computer all day and not being particularly active.”
“The key thing is to focus on including plenty of fresh, in-season vegetables and plant-based foods, and using healthy sources of protein and low GI carbohydrates to complement the vegetable part of the meal,” McLeod said.
“Including lots of colours in your meals is really important, as well. The more colours the more antioxidants and micronutrients will be found in the meal, which means you’re getting a better variety of nutrients.”
Macronutrient balanced meal ideas
- One or two poached eggs with a couple of slices of wholegrain toast, avocado, sauteed spinach, tomato and mushrooms
- Rolled oats with Greek style yogurt and some fruit
Lunch and Dinner
- Salmon with broccoli and sweet potato
- Stir fry with vegetables, tofu or chicken, cashews for healthy fats and brown rice to serve
- Fillet steak with a salad of leafy greens (such as rocket and spinach), avocado, tomatoes and cucumber, and quinoa to serve for the carbohydrate portion.