The term 'a balanced diet' is used frequently within the fitness industry and typically means a diet that gives your body the macro and micro nutrients it needs to function efficiently. The benchmark for what this diet looks like commonly includes sourcing your calories from fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and legumes. For this benchmark, it also suggests that people avoid and eliminate foods that produce 'empty calories', such as pizza, alcohol, sodas, ice cream, chips, fries, et cetera, et cetera. It also stipulates that the average person needs approximately 2,000 calories a day to maintain their weight with varying recommendations that account for activity level. However, is this way of living sustainable or universal? Is there room for deviation from this narrative?
A balanced diet and weight gain
Within the construct of what is traditionally viewed as a balanced diet the concept of eating to gain weight is not commonly discussed as who wants to gain weight, right? This is unfortunate as there are many instances (outside of an athlete needing to meet weight class requirements for a particular sport) that an individual would have a desire or need to gain weight. The advice that exists for these individuals indicate that the general concept of calories in versus calories out holds true. If you are trying to gain and retain weight you simply have to eat more calories than you burn with focus on increasing your protein and carbohydrates; however, healthily means the quality of food also matters and it is not a case of just having anything in sight. For many individuals on a weight gain journey increasing their protein intake typically results in feeling fuller more quickly which can result in simply not having enough calories per day and the feeling of force feeding can become a challenge. In these instances, there are three strategies that can aid in keeping you consistent:
Make small changes over time, starting with an increase in the amount of protein consumed then move to fats and carbs. This will give your body the time it needs to gradually adjust to getting more food.
Try incorporating shakes and less dense foods if the volume of food just becomes too much, for example instead of sweet potato you could have rice or bread. Also, if possible incorporate fatty protein options like eggs and fatty fish as well as using a healthy oil.
Try not to treat the way you eat as a short-term plan but how you want to live, that is, feel free to throw in a pizza, some ice cream, a glass of wine et cetera.
In addition to the above, don't forget to add exercise (particularly resistance training) to your arsenal as you tackle this journey of sustainable weight gain as exercise will support building muscle mass.
A balanced diet and weight loss
So you make the decision that you are ready to improve your health by undertaking a weight loss journey. Typically, what follows this decision is a choice of physical activity then a 'diet' plan or vice versa. For the diet plan, there are a myriad of options within the fitness industry, including ketogenic, Mediterranean, herbal life, plant-based, low carb, among many others, that have been utilized over the years to reap results. Experience and research have shown that with consistency there is a relatively high probability that all the above-mentioned diets can support a weight loss journey in the short-term; however, the challenge for most usually comes after the goal is achieved or they “fell off the wagon” during their dieting period—research has highlighted that approximately 80% of dieters regain the weight lost. Why is it that so many individuals after having success with their diet plan of choice eventually regain most or all the weight lost? Is it that dieters in general are too weak-willed?
A common factor with almost all diets, similar to the traditional concept of a balanced diet, is that there is a list of ‘forbidden’ foods and some level of calorie restriction. However, this restrictive nature of eating is not sustainable and a post diet plan (one that focuses on reintroducing increased calories) is necessary for when the dieting phase has ended. The reintroduction of increased calories is needed to revamp the body's metabolism that would have likely slowed down during the restricted phase as leptin levels usually decline with more restricted eating. What typically happens during this phase (where the regaining of weight takes place) is persons over indulge in all the foods that were classified as bad or forbidden and the body becomes confused not knowing what to do with all the added calories. And this is where the never ending cycle begins which then translates to chronic dieting and before you know it you have now developed an unhealthy relationship with food.
An alternate option to this chronic cycle is to go at it slow making small changes one day at a time with a view that the process might be longer. With this approach the weight lost will likely remain lost as your body and life had the time to adjust.
For example, if you typically consume 28 meals per week and majority of your meals are just whatever you can get your hands on, each week make a concerted effort to replace one of those meals with a healthier option until the reverse happens.
Now, I am not saying that choosing to "diet" is not an excellent option to jump start a weight loss journey as some persons require a regimen and structure to reap results and if that is your personality then by all means go for it. What I am trying to highlight is that there is no one size fits all and the journey to being a healthier version of yourself comes in varying forms and can change with time as life happens.
Whether your aim is to lose, gain or maintain your weight, a balanced diet does not mean complete elimination of some foods and should really be more about "is this sustainable?". There is no need to label foods as bad (forbidden) or good. I like to say it's better to treat them as "always" food or "sometimes" food. That is, instead of casting a slice of cake as being bad consider it a sometimes food meaning you are not looking to have it every single day but if you do decide to have a slice every now and then you can do so in peace without taking on all the guilt and feeling as though you now need to exercise more to burn off the calories from the cake. Similarly, instead of saying lean protein and sweet potato are good you classify them as always food, implying in any combination these are foods you can choose from at any point in time as they will adequately nourish your body. Conversely, if having a systematic approach and being regimented about what you eat and measuring out to the last gram of each food is what you need, then by all means employ this strategy.
At the end of the day working through trial and error to find what works for YOU and fits YOUR life is what matters most. And remember, a misstep on the journey to a healthier you is not failure it's just a learning process. Life happens and sometimes our plates can handle so much and no more, it is ok to give yourself grace and keep trying at being a better version of yourself.
Remember the power of consistent small gains!