What Does A Balanced Diet Actually Look Like? Experts Say It's All About Listening To Your Body

I think the first time I heard the word "balanced" in a food context was in a TV commercial. The catchy jingle would start playing, then a mascot might pop into the scene, and then the delicious cereal or muffin or granola bar would appear. As an actor sat down to dig in, a message would flash over the screen: "part of a balanced breakfast." But what does a balanced diet actually look like? Is eating dessert every night part of that balance? How much cheese, exactly, can be part of a "balanced" diet? Luckily, two experts have some advice.

Elise Museles, a certified nutrition and eating psychology expert, suggests gradually learning what "balance" really means to you. "Instead of stressing about changing everything all at once, start by focusing on the next meal," she tells Elite Daily in an email. "Make sure you get a healthy mix of macronutrients (that’s protein, carbs, and fat) each time you eat — and never wait too long in between meals."

It's important to focus on more than just your physical body, though. Make sure your mind is in the right place as you pursue a balanced lifestyle, says Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef and author of the upcoming book Food You Want For The Life You Crave. "A balanced diet begins with a healthy mindset of eating [whole] foods most of the time, and indulging some of the time," she tells Elite Daily. Fischer adds that she personally follows what she calls the "90/10 mindset," which basically breaks down to eating wholesome foods about 90 percent of the time, and treating yourself to less nutrition-focused foods for the other 10 percent of the time.

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Of course, this breakdown could certainly look very different for you, Fischer points out. "For some, the 'balance' might be more 80 percent and 20 percent," she explains. "All of our needs are unique — we all ought to strive for a state where we feel energized, healthy, and happy."

Knowing your intentions for a healthy lifestyle can help you shape how you're eating on a day-to-day basis, says Museles. "You can have the best intentions to balance your blood sugar, [or] eat three meals with a snack in between, but if you haven’t set yourself up for success," she explains, "then oftentimes those good intentions fall by the wayside."

One easy way to set yourself up for success here is to make what you're eating look beautiful whenever you can. "Instead of reaching for a to-go mug or, worse, a disposable cup of coffee, pour your smoothie bowl out and garnish it as you would for a friend," Museles suggests. "All those beautiful colors (and nutrients) help start your morning with love and set the tone for choosing nourishment the rest of the day."

Here's the thing, though: In real life, you won't always choose nourishment over indulgence — and that's OK. Personally, I'm definitely someone who can get a little stuck on the "extremes" of food sometimes. There are days when I eat tons of fresh, plant-based foods and nothing processed at all, and days when none of the goodies I'm enjoying have much nutritional value at all. If you have trouble finding a middle ground sometimes, too, Fischer suggests, first and foremost, actually honoring your cravings. "True food freedom comes when you decide to love your body and feed it what it desires," she tells Elite Daily.

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If what you desire includes potato chips, ice cream, and pizza, there's nothing wrong with that. Your real goal, says Fischer, is to try to understand why you are craving certain foods, because that'll help you figure out what your body's missing out on in terms of nutrients. "If you’re craving meat, maybe your iron level is low," she explains. "If you’re craving chocolate, maybe you need to add more magnesium into your diet."

While it may take some time for you to start learning what your cravings mean and how to meet those needs, you will adjust eventually, and before you know it, you'll probably be able to eat a little more intuitively. "At some point, by listening to your body, you’ll feed it what it needs (without the guilt)," Fischer tells Elite Daily.

As frustrating as it may be, there is no exact formula for a balanced diet, says Museles. "Balance cannot be found only [by] consuming X amount of carbs and just a dash of fat," she explains. "Because at the end of the day, you can eat all the kale salads, quinoa dishes, and superfood-filled smoothies in the world, but if your mind is filled with negative and self-critical thoughts, then you’re never going to feel truly nourished."

Still a little confused about what your first step should be in creating a balanced diet? First of all, throw away any "rules" about what you "should" and "shouldn't" eat (except for food allergies, of course), Museles suggests. Instead, she says, start to make a list of the foods you truly enjoy by focusing on the flavors, textures, and experiences that are genuinely delicious to you.

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According to Museles, it's important to determine for yourself how you want to feel when you're grocery shopping, sitting down to a meal, even moving through your daily life. "Once you know the answers, you can cook and eat accordingly," she tells Elite Daily. "This will make your meals a lot less stressful and a lot more fun."

If you've always been scared to try a certain ingredient, pick it up next time you're grocery shopping. For instance, I was always pretty wary of fresh jackfruit because it seemed so intimidating to harvest the flesh from the inside of the fruit. But once I tried it, it quickly became one of my favorites. Feeling adventurous with the foods I eat is definitely a priority for me now, especially as someone who used to stick to a pretty regular rotation of meals.

As you're finding out what a healthy balance means to you, remember to be gentle with yourself throughout the process, says Fischer. "Get to know how it feels to be in balance and strive to be in that zone as much as possible," she explains. "If you’ve partied too hard, eaten too much, or maybe you’ve deprived yourself for too long, then [simply] press the reset button."