Eating a balanced meal has always been a fundamental of good nutrition. Different nutrients are concentrated in different foods. For example, dairy foods are high in calcium but have no iron. Meats are good sources of iron but have no vitamin C. Fruits are good sources of vitamin C but are low in protein, etc. Because no one food contains every nutrient, eating a variety of food from different food groups is the best way to insure getting everything we need. This is the rationale of the old Basic Four Food Groups that was taught when most of us were in school.
But the health benefits of a balanced meal go much farther than just getting adequate nutrients. When we eat foods from different groups together in a single meal, we create a mix in the stomach that takes longer to digest. Different foods are digested by different enzymes. This means that in a mix, enzymes have to work in and around the foods they don’t digest and so it takes longer.
When our meal takes longer to digest, we lower our risk of developing diabetes. A meal that is digested rapidly requires our pancreas to secrete insulin to keep our blood sugar levels from going too high. Continuously secreting insulin to control blood sugar levels causes our cells to become immune to the insulin making it less effective. Over time, our risk of diabetes increases.
Slower digestion helps us to maintain an appropriate weight. A balanced meal (foods from different groups eaten together) satisfies us for a longer time. When we come to the next meal less hungry, we are less likely to overeat. Some people skip breakfast thinking that they are saving calories when actually they are increasing the chance of overeating for lunch. And if we replace those breakfast calories with a sweetened coffee or soda, we haven’t saved anything. Instead of skipping breakfast, have a balanced meal of cereal, milk, fruit and nuts; foods from four different food groups. This balance will deliver the nutrients you need for the morning and help you to make that lighter choice at lunch.
Although not a separate food group fiber helps slow digestion and improve meal balance. Fiber foods are not just whole grain breads and cereals. Think veggies. Beans and peas, salads, whole tomatoes, greens, broccoli are all good sources of fiber and when these foods are on our plate our meal is more balanced. In effect this comes back to something you have heard before. Making our meat portions smaller (3-4 ounces) makes room for vegetables. This trade of less meat for vegetables not only improves balance but also lowers the calorie content of our meal. Calories are concentrated in meats. Remember that in nutrition, “More is not better.” So, balance does not mean being a vegetarian but rather keeping more food groups on our plate.
And don’t forget all of those wonderful combination meals that we eat such as soups, stews, sautés, pizza and even sandwiches. These dishes are a flavorful way to include all the food groups together. Just remember to keep meal balance in mind when you are making that pizza, lots of veggies, less meat and a thin crust.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.