Let’s tackle the variety part first. We humans crave variety. We evolved in surroundings overrun with a huge range of plant foods, insects and wild creatures on land and in the sea. The drive to consume from this edible landscape was nature’s way to ensure that our nutrient needs would be met.
We carry this same urge with us today. It would still serve us well if we were merely selecting from a spread of edible plants and wild animals. But we’re not. We’re faced with way too many food choices. Not all of them are good for us, and studies show that the more choices we have, the more we eat. So, more variety can lead to a healthy, well-balanced diet—but only if you’re making the most of your selections from a range of healthy items to begin with.
What does balance mean? Does it mean you can balance a relatively unhealthy food with a healthy one? Do the nutritional positives of a grapefruit balance the negatives of a slab of chocolate cake?
This idea that everything fits into a balanced diet can be demonstrated quite nicely, if you plan out a day’s diet on paper. You could plan to eat a not-so-good-for-you fast food burger and fries for lunch, and balance it out with a really healthy breakfast and dinner. And if you did the nutrient and calorie calculations for a day like that, it might not look too bad. With careful choices at breakfast and dinner, you could probably keep the day’s calories and fat under control, and even meet many of your nutrient requirements.
But who eats that way? I‘d bet that most people who opt for a fast food lunch are looking for something pretty similar for dinner. And I doubt that someone who opts for grilled fish and kale salad at dinner is very likely to swing into the fast food drive-through lane at lunchtime.
Moderation is usually taken to mean not overeating in general, but it especially applies to the empty-calorie extras, like fats, sweets and alcohol. Some people practice moderation really well. They can keep a bag of cookies in the cupboard, for instance, without losing control and consuming the entire bag.
But for others, the concept of eating a single cookie is completely foreign to them. One biscuit will always lead to another and another. For these folks, learning to moderate their intake may never happen, and they might be better off avoiding temptation altogether. And just don’t bring cookies into the house in the first place.
So, are there bad foods, or just bad diets? In my view, I think we have a bit of both. I’ve got my own personal list of foods I think are ‘bad,’ and it’s likely that you’ve got a list, too. Whether we choose to eat these foods, or how often, is a personal decision. But pile enough bad foods on your plate, and you’ve got a bad diet.
In the end, you should strive to eat as well as you can, as often as possible. Variety should come, for the most part, from a range of healthy foods available to you. Balance should be less about countering the ‘bad’ foods with the ‘good,’ and more about getting the right nutrient balance. This means giving your body what it needs to stay healthy: lean proteins, good carbohydrate sources like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and moderate amounts of beneficial fats.
This isn’t to say you can’t indulge from time to time. But moderation is probably the hardest part of the variety, balance and moderation message to put into practice. It’s tough to take in only what you need when there’s temptation everywhere you turn.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.