What Makes a Balanced Diet? Back to the Nutrition Basics

Balanced diet

What is a Balanced Diet?

A balanced diet gives your body the energy and nutrients it needs to function correctly. Not all foods are created equally, so some foods have more of these nutrients than others.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans does a good job at laying out the definition of a balanced diet, specifically as it relates to age, gender and health status. But when you are looking to create a balanced meal or even meal prep for the day or week ahead, what should you do to make sure you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need?

A healthy, balanced diet will usually offer the following benefits:

  • Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • Protein
  • Healthy carbohydrates
  • Healthy fats

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are a key source of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are extremely nutrient-dense, high in fiber and low in calories. When making a meal, fruits and vegetables should ideally take up half your plate. The key is not to flood them in heavy sauces, creams or butters which are high in fat and calories.


Protein is a body-building nutrient made from amino acids. It is essential for cell structure and function, maintaining and building muscle, healing wounds, and many other processes. Eating enough protein can also help keep you full between meals.

A good rule of thumb is to make 1/4 of your meal based in lean proteins. Animal proteins can include poultry (chicken, turkey), reduced-fat beef, fish and seafood. Animal proteins include nuts, beans, lentils and soy-based products such as tofu or tempeh.

Healthy Carbohydrates

Although they often get a bad reputation, carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy, also providing additional vitamins, minerals and fiber. For most traditional carbohydrates, you’ll want to opt for whole grain options because they aren’t stripped of their nutritional benefits the way many other grains are during the manufacturing process. Try switching from white breads, pastas and rice to whole grain options.

Fats and Oils

Healthy fats are essential for energy and cell health, but other fats (like saturated fats) can worsen your cardiovascular health and lead to weight gain. Healthy fats include vegetable oils and fish oils. Think olive oil, avocados and seafood. Fats you will want to limit include butter, cheese, cream, and trans fats that are found in a lot of processed foods.


This is another food group that is worthy to note, although too much dairy in your diet can increase your fat intake. Dairy products can provide essential nutrients such as protein, calcium and vitamin D. They include milks, cheese and yogurt. If you want to reduce your intake of non-vegetable fats, reduced-fat dairy options might be a good option for you.

Putting it All Together

A healthy and balanced diet draws from a variety of food groups to give you optimal health benefits. The basics of a balanced diet include fruits and vegetables, protein, healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates. Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, lean meat, whole grains and seafood are all excellent foods to add to your meal rotation.

For more information about building a balanced diet, make sure you check out the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

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