Achieving a varied balanced diet

Achieving a varied balanced diet

By Dr Joanna McMillan

We spend a lot of time talking about creating a healthy balanced meal, but how do we know that our overall diet is balanced, giving us all the nutrients we need? Clearly we can’t eat the variety of foods we need every single day and neither do we need to. But just how often should be aiming to eat certain foods?


Lots of Plants

Certain nutrients we cannot store in the body and therefore we need them every day. These include the water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C. This means that we must include sources of vitamin C every day for optimal health. By eating the recommended minimum of 5 different vegies and 2 pieces of fruit you’ll easily meet your vitamin C requirement.

For those of you on higher energy levels you’ll see that your plant food intake is even higher than this – the bigger and more active you are, the greater need for most nutrients, hence the higher intake. But essentially for all of us, vegies are the one group of foods that you really can’t overeat so happily stock up on these.

So what plant foods do you need to eat every day?

Leafy Greens

These are absolutely key to great health and we need to eat them everyday. The darker the leaves the better in general terms, but mix up what you eat from day to day. If you always buy the same type of lettuce, try something different, and while kale is fantastic, other greens such as watercress, endive or spinach are better for some nutrients so mix it up! Try to include leafy greens of some sort in at least two meals every day.


I’m a huge fan of berries of all varieties. They are low in kilojoules and sugar, high in vitamin C and fibre, while bursting with antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals. Try to include these every day while in season.

Otherwise think across the course of the week and vary the other fruits and vegies every day that make up your plant blocks. Perhaps try setting a target that over the week you’ll eat at least 15 different fruits and veg – jot them down so you can see whether you achieve this!


The research on nuts is overwhelmingly positive. Those who eat a handful of nuts on most days have a 30-50% lower risk of heart disease for starters… isn’t that extraordinary? We also know that nut eaters are leaner and so despite their energy density and fat content, nuts truly can help with you to meet your Get Lean goals. For that reason I’ve amended the portion of nuts making a block to 30g to reflect this research. Try to have them every day whether as a snack, sprinkled on your breakfast or a salad, or mixed into a recipe.

Dairy or Alternatives

We have a pretty high requirement for calcium and in order to meet the demand we really need to include calcium-rich foods or drinks every day. If you eat dairy foods then it’s undoubtedly the easiest way to achieve this, but it’s not the only way. Clearly since much of the world lives without dairy it’s not obligatory for human health!

If you have no problem with dairy then including 2-3 serves a day of milk, yoghurt or cheese is a great idea. Neither need they be low fat as the advice was in the past (and still is in our official dietary guidelines).

The latest research actually shows some benefits to milk fat and shows that when the saturated fat found in dairy is consumed along with the protein and calcium of milk, yoghurt or cheese, it does not seem to raise blood cholesterol.

Extracting the fat and eating it as butter does – and you get none of the protein or calcium in this food. Hence I recommend better fat choices over butter, but happily including whole dairy foods instead.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Get Lean is a moderate fat dietary approach and I strongly encourage you to include healthy fats in each meal. This is the major difference between my plate model and most others I have seen. The evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of including good fats in your day rather than opting for low fat. I recommend therefore using extra virgin olive oil every day as your dietary staple. It’s full of heart friendly and weight friendly monounsaturated fats and has an incredible array of phytonutrients that no other oil or fat has.


Over the course of the week try to include these foods:

Oily Fish

Oily fish include salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring. These are the richest dietary sources of the long chain omega-3 fats we need for brain and heart health. They also have a strong anti-inflammatory effect in the body and so are beneficial for arthritis and many other inflammatory conditions. To meet our requirements for omega-3s aim to include an oily fish 2-3 times a week. Canned fish counts so salmon in a sandwich at lunch, some smoked salmon with breakfast or how about canned sardines on toast? It’s not all that difficult once you get into the routine.

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan I highly recommend taking an algal omega-3 supplement. Although some plant foods contain omega-2 fats, these are the shorter chain ones. We can elongate these in the body but only to a limited capacity.

Red Meat

Red meat has taken a bit of a bashing recently with the news regarding cancer risk. However it’s important to point out that humans have long consumed meat and indeed our relatively high requirement for iron probably reflects this. Where modern humans are probably going wrong is in the type of meat they consume (processed meats certainly have some problems) and in the balance of meat and accompanying plant foods. So the message is clear – make half your plate salad or vegies alongside your steak!

Our Australian Dietary Guidelines actually take the cancer research on meat into account, alongside the fact that red meat is such a good source of iron and zinc. The recommendation for a serve of 100-200g (raw weight) of red meat 3-4 times a week is pretty sound.

For those of you who don’t eat red meat then just be aware that it is harder to meet iron requirements without it and include alternative iron-rich foods e.g. dark poultry meat, seafood especially oysters or mussels, and for vegetarians – legumes, wholegrains and leafy greens but include a rich vitamin C source at the same time.


Legumes are pretty unique plant foods. They provide good levels of protein, the carbs are slowly absorbed giving all legumes a low GI, they are packed with fibre including soluble and resistant starch (both beneficial for supporting good gut bacterial growth) and have important nutrients in abundance such as folate.

Aim to include a legume at least once a week and provided you have no gut intolerance to them (legumes are a no-no on a low FODMAPS diet for treatment of IBS symptoms) you can include them more often. Even if you have some gas and other gut symptoms it’s worth trying to include a small serve of legumes so that you gradually change your gut microbiota for the better.

For vegetarians and vegans these foods are gold. Get them into your diet every day in place of meat or seafood.

This article was originally published on Dr. Joanna McMillan’s site.


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