The beneficial health effects of a balanced diet

Eating a balanced diet is essential to combat overweight and obesity, as well as other pathologies that are having more and more incidence in today’s society. It is not about following a strict and restrictive diet, but about providing the body with all the nutrients it needs to perform its vital functions. 

Do you want to eat healthy and properly ? In this post we tell you how to achieve it in a simple way and all the benefits you will get for your health. 

What is diet?

Do you know the etymology of the word “ diet ”? It is very revealing, since it comes from the Greek diatia ( δίαιτα), which means “ way of life ”. And it is that, the way in which we eat constitutes a habit and therefore a way of living. 

Although the word diet is often used -wrongly- to refer to restrictive diets aimed at weight loss or linked to some disease, the diet is, in reality, the set of foods, as well as their quantity and frequency with which are ingested.

In the case of human beings, food is conditioned by cultural, geographical, climatic, economic and social factors and, in addition, by individual tastes. 

Differences between food, nutrition and dietetics 

The terms food, nutrition and dietetics are sometimes used interchangeably, but you should know that they are not the same: 

  • Food refers to the entire process by which we supply our body with food, this process is essential for living beings to obtain energy. It encompasses both the preparation or cooking of food and its intake. It varies according to individual and social circumstances.
  • Nutrition refers to the process in which the body transforms the food ingested, incorporating the nutrients present in them into the body.
  • Dietetics is a discipline linked to food and nutrition, which studies the most appropriate foods and diet according to individual circumstances, such as age, sex or the presence of pathologies in order to maintain health. 

What are nutrients? 

As we have seen, nutrients are part of the food we eat in the eating process.

An adequate diet , which provides the body with the nutrients it needs, combined with regular physical activity, is key to enjoying good health. On the contrary, a poor diet can have very negative effects, reducing the capacity of the immune system and subtracting physical and mental energy to carry out basic activities normally.

Human beings need six main groups of nutrients divided into two categories based on the amount needed: 

  • Macronutrients : we need them in a greater quantity and their fundamental role is the contribution of energy.
  • Glucides ( or carbohydrates, carbohydrates or hydrates): serve to provide our body with the energy necessary to function.

They can be of two kinds:

  • Simple : they break down quickly and therefore provide energy quickly. For example, honey, sugar or white rice.
  • Complexes : they break down more slowly, so they release energy more slowly. For example, pasta or whole wheat bread.

While its excessive intake can lead to diseases such as obesity or diabetes, its deficiency can result in fatigue or weakening of muscle tissue (as the body is forced to obtain energy from protein).

  • Proteins: they are made up of amino acids and, in addition to providing energy, they have a structural function, since they are involved in the formation of muscle tissue, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, etc. When there is a lack of these, health problems such as loss of muscle mass can occur.

There are 9 essential amino acids ( valine, leucine, isoleucine, threonine, lysine, methionine, histidine, phenylalanine, tryptophan ), which the body cannot synthesize and are essential for creating proteins, so they must be supplied through the diet. Proteins can be found in foods such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes and seafood.

  • Lipids (or fats): they play an important role in our body, mainly they do not provide energy, they transport fat-soluble vitamins, and they are a structural part of cell membranes. We distinguish two types:
  1. Saturated fats : structurally they do not contain double bonds (unsaturations), hence their name. They are generally solid at room temperature and come from animals or some vegetable oils, such as coconut or palm oil. In general they are not considered healthy fats and their consumption should be limited.
  2. Unsaturated fats : structurally they have at least one double bond. They are liquid at room temperature and are found in oils such as olive or sunflower. In turn, they are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats based on the number of double bonds they contain. These types of links modify the properties of lipids, which is why these fats are considered healthier. Within this group are Omega-3 fatty acids, necessary for proper brain development, anti-inflammatory and with protective properties against cardiovascular events.

Lipids are necessary for the body, as they provide energy and protect vital organs, however they must be ingested in moderation since excessive consumption leads to increased cholesterol and obesity among other pathologies.

  •   Micronutrients: they are necessary in very small amounts, but they are key to the proper functioning of the body. They usually have a repairing or plastic function or regulation of certain cellular chemical reactions.
  • Vitamins: they are involved in many biological processes and are found in both animal and vegetable foods, although the main source is fruits and vegetables. Each vitamin has specific functions. For example, vitamin C has an antioxidant effect, protecting the body from oxidative stress, A is also an antioxidant and has a key role in vision, and K is involved in blood coagulation. It is important to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and food in general in the diet, in this way we make sure that we incorporate all the vitamins into our body.
  • Minerals: they are also essential for many processes in the body. Both its absence and excess generate various pathologies depending on the mineral. For example, a lack of calcium can cause osteoporosis, while an excess of sodium can cause hypertension.
  • Water: although it is not strictly considered a nutrient, given the importance of its daily intake, we include it in this category. It has a fundamental role in the elimination of waste or digestion. We can provide it directly or through other products. 

The importance of fiber

Fiber deserves a separate mention, since, although it does not enter the group of nutrients because it cannot be digested, it contributes to such important functions as  gastrointestinal transit, water absorption, cholesterol elimination or glucose reduction. in blood and the level of fatty acids.In addition, it constitutes the food of the microbiota or intestinal flora, which is a group of microorganisms found in our intestine. The microbiota plays a very important role in health, but we are beginning to discover the extent of its importance today. Among its functions we can highlight its participation in the immune system and in the digestive function. For all these reasons, it is necessary to include fiber in our diet through fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The consequences of a lack of fiber can lead to diverticular disease of the colon, hemorrhoids, hiatal hernia or varicose veins . Eating foods rich in fiber will contribute to the prevention of all these pathologies and, in addition, your cholesterol and risk of heart disease will be decreased.

There are two types of fiber:

  • Soluble
  • Insoluble

Insoluble fiber has a more important role in regulating intestinal transit, soluble fiber is more related to lowering cholesterol, blood glucose, etc. Both should be part of a balanced diet. 

What does a balanced diet consist of?

A balanced diet is one in which foods from all the groups we have seen are consumed, and which covers the recommended intake amounts of each nutrient to ensure the proper functioning of the body.

We can graphically represent the balanced diet with the food pyramid. This may vary depending on different cultures. In Spain, for example, the nutritional pyramid is based on the Mediterranean diet, which has shown a very positive impact on the health of the population.

We have to emphasize that in general there are no “good” and “bad” foods , but that this quality is given by the frequency with which they are eaten, as well as by their composition. Obviously processed foods involve the intake of many substances in addition to the nutrients themselves and limiting their consumption as much as possible is desirable.

In order to guide us when it comes to eating a balanced diet , there are food guides, manuals that show us in a simple way how to eat well.

The healthy eating pyramid, developed by SENC (Spanish Society for Community Nutrition), is the most widely used tool today.

This pyramid separates foods based on the frequency with which their consumption is recommended.

It is interpreted as follows:

At the base of the pyramid we find healthy lifestyle habits that must accompany the intake of nutrients, healthy cooking techniques that avoid the degradation of nutrients and an appropriate daily amount of water that allows the elimination of waste from the body.

  • The foods at the base of the pyramid provide energy and we must consume them daily. They supply most of the carbohydrates, and are found in foods such as cereals, rice, etc. It is an important sign that today cereals undergo a refining process in which they lose many properties such as fiber, which is why it is recommended to consume them in their integral form. From 4 to 6 servings of this group provide slow assimilation hydrates, so they are an excellent source of energy. 
  • On the second step we have vegetables, fruits and vegetables. We will take more than two daily servings of vegetables and more than 3 daily servings of fruit.

Vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemical agents that are associated with healthy aging and the prevention of numerous diseases. A balanced diet must include a certain amount of fat, but we must be careful with the type to which it belongs, favoring the consumption of vegetable oils over fats of animal origin. Be careful with vegetable oils such as coconut or palm as they are rich in saturated fat, not as healthy as olive or sunflower. 

  • It is also advisable to consume dairy, fish or white meat daily. Dairy is an excellent source of calcium and protein. We cannot overdo it since they contain saturated fats that can unbalance the lipid profile. Fish and white meat are a source of protein that is low in fat and cholesterol and can also be included in the diet as a source of protein.
  • Foods of animal origin provide proteins of high biological value and should be taken at least once a day. A protein is considered of high biological value when it contains all the essential amino acids that our body needs to manufacture our own proteins. Animal protein provides all the essential amino acids as well as vitamins, iron, zinc, etc. Legumes provide fiber, linolenic acid and essential amino acids. Nuts are important sources of vegetable protein, providing a large amount of energy. 
  • Red meat or processed meat provide protein and minerals but also provide a large amount of cholesterol and fat and should be eaten occasionally.
  • Sweets , pastries, snacks and processed foods should be eaten occasionally since their nutritional contribution is poor and they have a negative impact on health.

The 6 pillars of a balanced diet

These are the six pillars on which a balanced diet is based : 

  1. Adapted: it must be totally personalized to the particularities of each person, their schedules, physical activity, economic conditions, age, health, etc.
  2. Complete: it must provide in adequate amounts all the nutrients, fiber and water that our body needs.
  3. Satisfactory: it is important that the food, the quantities and the preparations are appropriate and pleasant to feel satisfied, eating well does not have to be boring. 
  4. Varied: to get away from monotony it is advisable to vary our range of foods, in this way we ensure the contribution of all minerals and vitamins. In addition, we must ensure that they are fresh and in season. 
  5. Balanced in energy: the energy contribution must be what we need, it is important for the correct functioning of our body not to go too far or fall short.
  6. Safe: it should not put our health at risk, preventing food poisoning and avoiding the intake of harmful components, such as pesticides from fruit and vegetables or the abuse of additives. 

A balanced diet: the best tool to take care of your health

As popular wisdom says “we are what we eat”. Indeed, food and health are closely linked. This is supported by numerous scientific studies. Recently, an article in the prestigious magazine The Lancet stated how “eating poorly causes more deaths per year than tobacco.” In his study on nutrition and health, he showed how the consumption of unhealthy foods leads to a significant increase in serious health problems.

In addition to those exposed in this study, a poor diet can also cause other problems such as overweight and obesity , the latter classified by the WHO as a pandemic within non-infectious pathologies.

Diet is one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to preventing diseases, which is why we must strive to ensure that it is balanced. In this way we provide our body with all the necessary nutrients, and in their proper measure, so that it can properly execute all our biological functions. In addition, we reduce the risk of suffering pathologies in the short, medium and long term that are related to inadequate nutrition: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, even certain types of cancer, etc. The commitment to a balanced diet is the best health insurance that we can acquire with ourselves.

As you have seen, the benefits of a balanced diet, always combined with a healthy lifestyle , are undeniable. It is never too late to put it into practice, in fact an appropriate diet during breastfeeding favors the growth of the child and improves her cognitive development.

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