Opinion: A balancing act

By Molly Pond

As a registered dietitian, I have made it my work to help people define and move toward a healthful lifestyle. One aspect of that is a balanced diet.

Four good starting points for people to consider in creating a balanced diet are: energy, macronutrients, food groups and fun foods.

Energy balance describes the relationship between the energy we consume in the form of food and that we expend through our daily activities and exercise.

One aspect of a balanced diet is making sure we are eating the right amount not under-eating or overeating. To achieve this balance, we need to fuel our bodies frequently throughout the day, typically eating appropriate amounts every four to five hours to maintain energy. We have a built-in physiological system of hunger and satiety that helps us achieve energy balance.

Sometimes it is tricky to distinguish between real hunger and a craving. Often cravings are related to stress, boredom, other emotions or circumstances. Evaluating how long its actually been between meals may help clarify body cues. If its been less than three to four hours, its probably a craving, and eating is not automatically the correct response.

Another way to differentiate between hunger and craving is to think about the food groups and identify which you feel as though you could eat at the moment. If you could eat just about any of them youre probably hungry and its time to eat. If you only want foods from one group or one specific food thats a craving.

One strategy for conquering the craving is to make a list of things to do instead of eating what you crave. Creating a physical ritual such as making tea or going for a walk and waiting 15 minutes to re-evaluate that craving is one strategy. If after that alternate activity the craving still exists, its better to satisfy itbecause denying it can lead to a backlash later.

Macronutrient intake is another factor in a balanced diet. All three macronutrients carbohydrates, protein and fat are necessary for our bodies to function properly.

Carbohydrates, which are found in grains, fruits, vegetables and even some dairy products, are our primary source of energy. Protein is found in meats and animal products as well as beans, nuts and soy products. Our muscles, immune system, and other body systems are maintained using the building blocks that come from the proteins we consume. Fat is essential for cell membranes, hormones, and nerve cell function.

Not all fats are created equal however; we should try using more unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats. A plan that recommends excluding any one of these macronutrients from our diets should be evaluated very carefully.

One way to make sure we are getting the right amount of energy and a good balance of macronutrients is to eat foods from all of the food groups.

Grains and grain products provide carbohydrates, protein, vitamin E and fiber. Lean meats, beans and nuts can provide protein and healthy fats. Fruits and vegetables provide carbohydrates, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and antioxidants. Fruits and vegetables also add color and some spectacular flavors to our plates, which add to the enjoyment of eating.

Picturing your plate half full of colorful vegetables, with the remaining half divided evenly between grains and protein is a good way to visualize this balance.

In our society, we have patterns of using food for purposes other than nutrition. Enjoying a celebration with family, going to dinner with friends, or grabbing a quick tasty bite to eat can and should be included in a balanced diet. It is important to remember that the healthful lifestyle you have been working toward will not be undermined, and will likely be enhanced, by these occasional indulgences.

There are times when we should treat ourselves to fun foods or splurge a little because that, too, helps maintain the proper balance.

Molly Pond is a registered dietitian. She received a Bachelor of Science from Colorado State University and completed her dietetic internship at Keene State College in New Hampshire.