Photo of a vegetable stir fry
Stir frys are a great way to squeeze lots of different food types into one meal [Image: Morguefile]

A ‘balanced diet’ – more than just nutritional blah blah

2 February, 2012

We hear it all the time from doctors and diet gurus alike. “Eat a healthy diet”… “Eat a balanced diet”.

We hear it so often that it’s easy to tune it out or forget how profoundly important this advice is, especially in a culture where there are so many messages about how easy it is to take pills to balance out the chronic health problems that result from a poor diet.

Nutritional science has identified around 50 essential vitamins, amino acids, minerals and essential fatty acids that the human body needs but cannot make itself. These nutrients must be supplied by the food we eat.

In addition, scientists have also discovered more than 1200 phytochemicals, present in fruits, vegetables, beans and grains and animal products. Although not essential, many of these do appear to have positive impact on health and wellness.

No single food or food group supplies all that we need, hence the continued emphasis on a ‘healthy diet ‘ and the importance of dietary diversity in preventing chronic disease.

The burden of chronic disease

The term chronic diseases refers to illnesses that are not contagious and which don’t kill you outright, but linger on getting progressively worse over time. The list includes obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, osteoporosis, and dental diseases

Chronic diseases are the major causes of premature death in our society – a fact that is particularly frustrating since they are also largely preventable.

World Health Organization figures, for example, show that chronic diseases accounted for approximately 60% of deaths worldwide. Almost half of these deaths are attributed to cardiovascular diseases. In addition, obesity and diabetes already affect a large proportion of the population and have, worryingly, started to appear earlier in life.

The rise in chronic diseases has paralleled society’s shift towards a high-fat, energy-dense diet and a sedentary lifestyle, as well as a rise in tobacco use, and alcohol consumption.

It follows, then, that a shift back to a healthier diet could also begin to shift the terrible personal and medical burden of chronic disease.

Simply put, if something is bad for you – STOP DOING IT.

Does dietary diversity help?

It’s taken science – which is so often funded by pharmaceutical companies and other vested interests – a long time to start looking at the benefits of a varied diet.  Instead studies tend to look at single ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, or the use of single supplements as ’emergency interventions’ in people who are already sick.

Evidence, however, shows that consuming a variety of foods improves a range of health outcomes and assures that we get adequate nutrients  on a regular basis. Indeed human beings evolved to eat a wide variety of foods, say experts.

Years ago, findings from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)  study found that a more diverse diet protected from premature death from all causes.

Specific studies show that a varied diet:

Choose quality and variety over quantity

A varied diet will include a broad selection of foods across the whole range of the traditional food groups such as vegetables, fruits, cereals, meat, fish and dairy products.

A varied diet will also include a good mix of foods within each of these groups.

Eating the same breakfast cereal day in and day out, or eating two apples three sticks of celery each and everyday is not just a joyless way to meet your healthy eating targets; getting stuck in a dietary rut means you only ever get a limited range of the nutrients.

This is a problem at any age, but eating habits can become particularly ingrained as we get older. Studies show that lack of dietary variety is linked to inadequate nutrient intakes in the elderly.

How to increase dietary diversity

Research suggests that an intake of 30 or more different foods per week, or more than 12 foods in one day, characterises a diet that is giving us an adequate level of essential nutrients. In Japan, dietary guidelines suggest aiming for 30 different foodstuffs a day!

If you want to get more out of your diet consider the following table, courtesy of Nutrition Australia, which shows how small changes can instantly increase the variety in your daily diet.


Dietary variety chart


In addition you can try the following:

  • Choose foods that have variety ‘built-in’, like multigrain breads and mueslies.
  • Make use of side-dishes and condiments like fruit/vegetable salads, sprouted pulses, and fresh salsas, pickles and chutneys.
  • Stir fries, casseroles, soups and salads are an easy way to increase vegetable variety because they make use of several different ingredients.
  • Experiment when grocery shopping. Regularly try a fruit or vegetable that is not familiar to you.
  • Try foods from cultural traditions other than your own.

Remember, also just because you haven’t tried it, doesn’t mean you won’t like it. Likewise, even if you don’t like it the first time it’s worth trying again (and how often do we say this to our children?!).

Experts say that it can take humans up to nine attempts at a new food to adjust to and appreciate its flavour.

Finally check out our chart Getting the nutrients you need …naturally for tips on foods containing specific nutrients.

Happy (and healthy) eating!