Nutrition is best balanced by eating the right amounts of a large variety of foods. This provides the protein, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins needed for a healthy body. The right amounts of water and exercise are also critical to good health.
A balanced diet is often represented by different symbols. A wheel, plate, or circle symbol suggests a balance of foods is desirable. The rainbow symbol emphasizes variety. A pyramid symbol recommends the number of servings from various food groups decreases from a solid foundation at the bottom (or the base) to the top. Different cultures may use different symbols of healthy food intake based on foods available to them. All symbols have in common a variety of food intake from different food groups.
Grains provide mostly carbohydrates as starches. They also provide some protein that needs to be combined with legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, dairy, or meat to be complete. Half of the grain category should be from whole grains for fiber and vitamins. Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Certain vegetables such as potatoes also provide carbohydrates and some vegetable protein, which needs to be eaten with another protein food to be complete.
Fruits provide different vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They also provide sugars for quick energy. ½ to ¾ cup or 120 to 180 mL of fruit juice is the same as one serving of fruit. It is not wise to drink much more than this because the high sugar tends to replace other needed foods. Dairy products provide complete proteins and major minerals, particularly calcium. They are commonly supplemented with vitamin D and vitamin A.
If dairy products are not consumed in the recommended amounts, special efforts should be made to eat other calcium-rich foods or take a calcium supplement. This is particularly important for women.
Complete protein can be provided by meat, chicken, eggs, fish, and soybeans (e.g., tofu). Legumes (e.g., beans) can also provide complete protein if nuts/seeds or grains such as rice or corn are eaten at the same meal to provide limiting amino acids.
Vegetable oils can provide a balance of essential fatty acids. Use them in food preparation (frying, salad dressings, spreads, etc.). Canola and soy oils are preferred. Mustard and hemp seed oils are similar but less common. Olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fat and has a good ratio (although relatively low amounts) of essential fatty acids. Peanut, corn, sesame, sunflower, and safflower oils are relatively low in essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Half of servings in the oil category should be one of the vegetable oils providing essential fatty acids each day. Tropical oils (e.g., coconut and palm) are extremely low in essential fatty acids.
Discretionary calories should be limited to avoid excessive weight gain. Satisfying appetite with sweets limits eating of vitamin-, mineral-, and protein-rich foods important to good health and function.
Low fat dairy products and lean meat should be used or discretionary calories reduced.
A simple summary of food groups and good nutrition includes:
Grains for carbohydrates and fiber.
Brightly colored vegetables and fruits for vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Dairy for calcium and protein.
Meats, legumes (beans), and nuts for proteins.
Fats (oils) scattered among the foods for essential fatty acids.
Iodized salt should be used in all food preparation, even if it costs more, to avoid goiters which occur in many parts of the world.