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What is a balanced diet?

One of the most annoying things in life (for both parties involved) is when a person asks a dietician what diet should they follow. We as dieticians never have the popular opinion because it always comes down to the same phrase everyone dreads to hear – ‘there are no quick fixes, it is supposed to be a lifestyle and therefore you should just eat a balanced diet’. In this article, I will unpack this phrase into understandable concepts and give practical tips to help you in your journey to optimal health.

It is important to remember that every individual has a different nutrition goal, genetic background, economic situation, etc. Therefore, all these individualised factors need to be considered when choosing a diet and there is not one single right or wrong. One diet cannot be generalized and recommended for the entire population. For the general South African population, there are dietary guidelines developed to ensure optimal health. For an individualised diet, please consult a dietician.

The South African guidelines were developed by the Nutrition Society of South Africa in partnership with the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council, academics, food producer organizations and United Nations agencies. These food-based dietary guidelines (also known as dietary guidelines) are intended to establish a basis for public food and nutrition, health and agricultural policies and nutrition education programmes to foster healthy eating habits and lifestyles.

South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines

1. Enjoy a variety of foods.

  • Do not omit any food groups unnecessarily (religious reasons, allergies and intolerances are exceptions to this).
  • Also, if you are going to omit certain foods groups, be sure to replace them with foods with similar nutrient-content (or consider taking a supplement) to prevent deficiency.
  • For example: if you are lactose intolerant, make sure you take enough non-lactose containing calcium sources or a supplement.

2. Be active!

  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day to improve cardiovascular health.
  • Incorporate activities into your daily routine that also increase your heart rate, such as; taking the stairs instead of using the escalator, parking a bit further from the entrance of the shops, seeing gardening and vacuuming and those household chores as ‘exercise opportunities’.

3. Make starchy foods part of most meals.

  • Choose complex carbohydrates high in fibre to ensure stable blood glucose throughout the day (as glucose is the brain’s main energy source).
  • Replace simple carbohydrates high in sugar with complex carbohydrates.
    • Examples of complex carbohydrates are oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, beans, peas and lentils.
    • Simple carbs are often softer in texture – white bread, white rice and baked goods.

4. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day.

  • An extensive body of research demonstrates an association between vegetable and fruit intake and reduced disease risk. Available evidence indicates that greater vegetable and fruit intake has been associated with the reduced risk of many of the nutrition-related diseases and risk factors that contribute substantially to the burden of disease in South Africa.
  • The recommended daily amounts are 5 portions of assorted colours a day – consequently, eat a rainbow. To achieve this, fill half of your plate with salad or veggies and eat fruits as your snacks during the day.

5. Eat dry beans, split peas, lentils and soya regularly.

  • Legumes are a rich and economical source of good-quality protein, slow-release (low GI) carbohydrates, dietary fibre, various vitamins and minerals and non-nutritive components which may have several beneficial health effects.
  • Pulses have a low energy, fat and sodium content. Hence, legumes contribute to dietary adequacy, while protecting against lifestyle diseases.

6. Have milk, maas or yoghurt every day.

  • Milk and dairy products are recommended to be taken daily, especially considering their affordability and other benefits.
  • Milk and dairy products are excellent sources of several micronutrients, as well as being relatively low in sodium and high in potassium. Thus, they are preventative against hypertension, dyslipidaemia, glucose intolerance and cardiovascular disease.
  • Choose low fat dairy products such as fresh milk, fermented milk (maas, also known as amasi) and unsweetened yoghurt to prevent an increase in the intake of excessive saturated fatty acids, sodium and sugar, which are found in many highly processed dairy products.

7. Fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs can be eaten daily.

  • Food products from animals provide a variety of macro- and micronutrients (namely vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, niacin, iron and zinc) and can be consumed daily.
  • Animal sources of food, such as fish, chicken, meat and eggs, constitute high-quantity and high-quality protein, as they contain essential amino acids in the right proportions.
  • To prevent heart disease and hypercholesterolaemia, choose lean meat cuts, use healthier preparation methods and eat the correct portion sizes.

8. Drink lots of clean, safe water.

  • Water is an essential nutrient and important for the body, because it acts as a thermo-regulator, building material of cells in the body, a shock absorber, lubricant, solvent and carrier of various compounds, nutrients and waste products.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) advises a total water intake of 2.2 l/day for women and 2.9 l/day for men in average conditions.

9. Use fats sparingly. Choose vegetable oils rather than hard fats.

  • Replacing animal and plant sources of saturated fatty acids with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and monounsaturated fatty acids is recommended. The regular intake of oily fish to increase omega-3 long-chain PUFAs is important.
  • These above-mentioned recommendations are given as guidelines to prevent cardiovascular disease, hypercholesterolaemia, obesity and inflammation.
  • It is also stated to ensure that the right types of fats and oils are eaten and used in food preparation for early development and long-term health.

10. Use sugar and foods and drinks high in sugar sparingly.

  • In the past decade, the spotlight shifted to sugar and the risks associated with excessive sugar consumption.
  • Sugar makes a major contribution to the development of dental caries, as it displaces foods that are rich in micronutrients. Dietary sugar increases the risk of the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and possibly cardiovascular disease too.
  • High sugar foods such as confectionary, sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets and so forth should be limited and not taken between meals. Natural fructose containing foods (such as whole fruits) should not be avoided, because they contain water, nutrients and fibre as well.

11. Use salt and food high in salt sparingly.

  • A key driver of high blood pressure is high salt/sodium intake.
  • In South Africa, the following is related to high blood pressure: 50% of strokes, 42% of ischaemic heart disease, 72% of hypertensive heart disease, 22% of other cardiovascular disease.
  • There are few symptoms or visible signs that your blood pressure is high; it is therefore known as a ‘silent killer’.
  • Foods high in sodium include table salt, sauces, salad dressings, cured meats, bacon, pickles, bullion, instant soup, roasted salted nuts, snacks, fast foods, and canned foods.

I hope these general guidelines gave you a glimpse into what a healthy diet consists of. Please remember that slight changes and tweaks that can be incorporated into your everyday lifestyle will yield the biggest results. So, I’m going to repeat that dreaded phrase again: ‘There are no quick fixes, it is supposed to be a lifestyle and therefore you should just eat a balanced diet’.

For an individualised diet, please consult a dietician.

Retha Booyens (RD) SA