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What is a balanced diet anyway? The Healthy Plate method

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Do you ever wonder if you’re eating the right amounts of different foods? Too much protein and not enough veggies? Maybe you wonder if your kids get enough protein or perhaps you’re worried your carb intake is slightly too high but you can’t imagine your plate minus potatoes or pasta. Not to mention the confusion around fat! Read on for my lowdown on what a meal should generally consist of.

Food Groups and the Healthy Plate

There are three main food groups - protein, carbohydrates and fats. These are also called macronutrients. Then there are micronutrients which are vitamins (Vitamin A, B etc) and minerals (iron, calcium etc).

I first came across the idea of the Healthy Plate when I was studying as a Natural Chef at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London, and I continue to swear by it. It’s simple to remember and a really useful guide when you’re planning, cooking and plating up your food. It shows you what types of food to have in each meal, and in what proportions, but it doesn’t give portion sizes, as that is a very individual thing.

Have a look at the Healthy Plate image below from Bastyr University in Seattle, which specialises in science based natural medicine.

Almost half the plate is vegetables.

A quarter of the plate is protein.

A quarter of the plate is whole grains and starches.

You may have noticed that carbs aren’t here, and that’s not because they aren’t there at all, it’s because carbohydrates form part of three of the main food types on the plate. Yes, vegetables contain carbs! The other things we should be putting on our healthy plates include healthy fats and digestives.

What are healthy fats and why should I eat them?

Let’s start with what fats aren’t. Fats are not the enemy! There are popular misconceptions floating around from the 80s and the vitalite generation (I grew up on the stuff!) that fat is the enemy, it causes heart issues and should be avoided at all costs! Let’s quickly bust some myths.

Fats are a necessary part of a healthy diet - we need fats for:

  • energy

  • hormone production

  • healthy cell membranes

  • gene expression

  • to absorb vitamins A, D, E & K (fat-soluble as opposed to water soluble vitamins)

This list is not exhaustive.

There are however crucial differences between healthy fats and unhealthy fats. I will write a blog post dedicated to this topic as it can get complicated, but I’m going to keep it simple here.

Unhealthy fats include processed, heated, deodorised and/or bleached vegetable oils and rancid fats. Avoid oils like corn, soy, canola, sunflower and safflower oils. Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats (also known as industrial trans fats) are vegetable oils that have been chemically altered to stay solid at room temperature, which gives them a much longer shelf life. These are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and are found in margarine and spreads as well as baked goods and processed foods.

Healthy fats include some saturated fats like butter and coconut oil, and these are stable at high temperatures and are therefore good for cooking with (I generally use coconut oil for everything!).

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you but should not be heated as it damages them and makes them unhealthy - these include olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and their cold pressed oils and butters. Other healthy fats include essential omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acids, which are found in chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower and hemp seeds, walnuts, almonds, cashews, dark green leafy veg, edamame beans and oily fish.

What are Digestives?

You may have heard of probiotics, microbiome, gut health, gut flora or the gut brain connection. There has been a gut health revolution in the recent past, as the conclusions of scientific research have pointed to how important our gut health is to our overall health. A healthy gut is one where there is a harmonious balance of microorganisms living in the digestive tract.

Digestives are probably known more widely as fermented foods. Fermentation is an ancient technique of food preservation which increases the number of good bacteria in the food.

There are trillions of microorganisms in our gut and we are only just beginning to understand the role they play in our bodies and the effects on our health when we have an imbalance in our gut flora. Perhaps you’ve taken antibiotics and experienced an upset stomach as an unfortunate side effect?

This is because the antibiotics are indiscriminate in which bacteria they kill - while killing off the bacteria causing the infection, they also kill off the good bacteria crucial to keeping our gut healthy.

According to Rachel De Thample, author of the Fermentation River Cottage Handbook, (she was also my Natural Chef Course Director at the College of Naturopathic Medicine),

“All food contains bacteria - beneficial strains as well as neutral and more harmful ones. Perhaps surprisingly, fruits and vegetables are home to lactobacillus, the same good bacteria you find in yoghurt. The principle of fermentation is to create conditions that allow those good bacteria to proliferate. And doing so is very easy: add the right amount of salt, control exposure to oxygen and keep your budding ferment at the right temperature and the good guys not only thrive, but out-compete any bad bugs, thereby preserving the food.”

How can I eat more of the good gut bacteria?

Eat fermented foods as often as you can. Dairy wise, think of yoghurt and kefir (go for natural yoghurt without added sugar as sugar feeds the bad bacteria!) Kimchi, oh delicious kimchi, is full of the good stuff, and that kick of spice adds a wonderful punch to many dishes (kimchi fried rice). Sauerkraut is obviously a staple in German cuisine but is available much more widely now thanks to the revival of fermentation. Sourdough bread uses a fermented starter and creates a really tangy flavour. My personal favourites are miso and tempeh, both made from fermented soy beans and I use them regularly in my cooking. Soy, especially tofu, can be high in anti-nutrients, but fermenting the beans really helps break them down to increase the nutrient absorption. As well as being mega healthy, miso paste is so full of rich umami flavour, I add it to loads of things to simply make them taste better!

The 80/20 Rule

Now that I’ve suggested what a healthy meal might look like, I’m going to say that being ‘healthy’ isn’t all about food anyway. I follow the 80/20 rule, where I eat pretty well 80% of the time, and don’t worry so much for the other 20%. I’m an ice cream lover, and if it’s my birthday I’m going to eat some cake, simple as.


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