We hear it everywhere: in order to be healthy, you need to eat a balanced diet. But what does that really mean? I’m scrolling through Google images right now trying to find an appropriate picture to go with this article, and at least half of the images only show “healthy” foods. You know what I mean: your greens; your grains; your fish; your eggs; your cheese; your meats (the latter four tiny splodges at the top compared to the large array of fruits and breads). A large percentage of the pictures are only of fruit and veg. I mean, come on: I have my own “cheese corner” in my fridge, and no one is ever taking that away from me. Especially not a food chart.
For the most part, the food triangle often used to demonstrate balanced eating is a fairly accurate rough guide, and looks something like this:
It is a rough guide to the way our diet will look if we listen to our bodies (when energy-balanced and healthy in themselves – not in a state of recovery or beforehand) and follow its cues – and we do not have to do any counting or checking or weighing or recording to trust that this is what our bodies will naturally lead us to do. Our bodies are extremely intelligent and I urge you to listen to them over most external influences.
I also like this pie chart, apart from the wording of “treats”, as these types of foods should just be another part of the pie chart rather than being labelled with a word that holds so many negative connotations.
What I do like about this pie chart is that it shows that 10% of your diet in a day should include foods deemed “unhealthy” by society. Foods like cookies, sweets, chocolate, cake, biscuits etc. Now this chart shows a representation of your daily diet. If you start to think about it, that means that you can eat these foods every day – something that I have seen demonised in countless magazines and online articles. I have often seen or heard advice that you should only eat “treats” a few times a week, and no way am I giving up my daily dose of baked goods, however much you tell me it’s not good for me, Karen.
The thing is, a lot of us believe the words “balanced diet ” to exclude those yummy foods that are so often seen as the devil. The thing is, these foods are an important part of a varied, balanced diet. They are part of our mental health – because we should not deprive ourselves of anything. They are a good, quick energy source for our bodies, and they are especially helpful to our bodies in recovery because of this. Eating a balanced diet means eating bits of everything. It means not restricting any food types or specific food items, unless you have a food allergy, food intolerance, or you have an illness that requires you to cut out certain foods or monitor them. It means varying what you eat and not eating the exact same thing every day. It means eating foods and consuming liquids that you enjoy. It means getting in those nutrient dense fruit and vegetables. It means providing yourself with an adequate amount of carbohydrates so that you have enough energy for the day. It means having that coffee and cake with Ann, and getting takeaway with Heather, and digging into ice cream and popcorn in front of a movie with Sam. It means changing up your routine. It means being flexible. It means trying out new things. It means going back to old favourites. It means hearty meals, light bites, snacks, and puddings. It means not overthinking it and letting your body lead the way.
So often these wonderful foods like crisps, pizza, and cake are associated with feelings of shame, greed, and overindulgence, and there can be judgement from others when eating them. However, this is only because they also have been made to feel those negative emotions when eating those foods themselves. The thing is, food is not a moral issue (and you can read my article on that here). You are free to eat what you want, when you want. You are free to be as healthy or unhealthy as you want – and that is not anyone’s business. And if you want to be healthy, follow the lead of your body (yes, I will repeat that until my death). If you want to check that you are eating a varied, balanced diet, do a quick valuation of what you eat on an average day or an average week, but don’t overthink it, as this can very quickly descend into a spiral of obsession. As long as every food group is incorporated into your diet, that’s a good sign. And when you’re uhmming and aahing in the cafe with Susan, just get the damn cake.