Since I have not always lived in this country, that repeated advice always made me wonder: What does a "balanced meal" mean? Where did it come from? Is it good advice? I remember hearing similar advice repeatedly in my youth, but in English, it just sounded oddly different.
Both my parents are physicians. My father is a pediatric surgeon (he still practices and teaches at a prestigious university). My mother was a pediatrician before she retired a few years ago, but spent most of her career as the chief medical administrator for a large province in my home country. So, nutritional admonitions were a constant part of my upbringing.
This was especially true because, as an infant I had an intestinal problem that required surgery to resolve, with two major consequences. The first is a large surgical scar that made a bikini not my first choice for beachwear – as I lived in Hawaii for 9 years, that was always a disappointment.
"Your body will not allow you to eat like other people"
Secondly, my father, while he railed about the importance of "proper nutrition" and the Russian equivalent of a "balanced meal" he always counseled me to not follow the latter advice. "Your body will not allow you to eat like other people," he told me. "You need to eat small meals, and just one kind of food at a time, or you will cause yourself digestive problems."
I followed his advice all my young years, and he was right. Whenever I tried to depart from his stern warnings, it was greeted with intense intestinal pain.
Not long after I came to this country, and eager to live the wonderful American lifestyle and indulge in its many wonderful culinary delights, I quit listening to the voice of my father in my head. I eventually paid for it with pain that exceeded anything I felt during childbirth (years later). After countless tests and ultrasounds, and x-rays, I underwent another difficult abdominal surgery.
This not only enlarged my bikini-defying scar, it made me go back to living Papa's advice.
I couldn't eat like American's did.
And for many years, that kept me lean (except for a problem pregnancy – which is a different story, for later).
Why study "balanced meals"?
So, I decided to track down the whole "balanced" meal idea. It seemed so wholesome, so correct, so ingrained in our practices and language, that everyone I talked to about it wondered what value could possibly come from even questioning it.
Yet, my double abdominal scar reminded me daily that there was a disconnect from the "eat a balanced meal" approach and my forced "one-food-at-a-time" meal choices. While I kept a youthful figure though my 30's, all my friends were steadily gaining weight. Something wasn't right, so I decided to check into it.
There was also this nagging thought in the back of my head: If, as Papa said, eating like other people was not good for my body, was it possible that it wasn't good for those other people either – it just took longer to show-up as a problem in their bodies?
Sometimes the things we do the most often, the things about which we seldom ever ask "why is that so?" turn out to be things that really matter.
This is my report to you on what I learned about "balanced meals."
What is a Balanced Meal?
Basically, it is the idea that every meal ought to include each of the major macronutrients, like carbs and proteins and fats and vegetables and fruits. It is where we get the idea to serve a baked potato with steak, with a small salad on the side. Or rice with our fish. Or a side of applesauce to accompany our pork-chops and mashed potatoes as an evening meal.
What could be wrong with any of that? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. That advice is part of the weight gain problem and certainly stands in the way of losing weight.
Where did the idea of a "balanced meal" come from?
When scientists first discovered vitamins and minerals, and learned of their importance to our bodies, it became apparent that some foods were better for our health than others – some foods just had a lot of these vital elements, while others didn't. So our parents and grandparents were loaded-up on the importance of eating the "right foods" to make sure they got all the right nutrients.
But, then it became apparent that some foods had too much of bad things – like fat. So they were told NOT to eat butter (for example) because it was nothing but fat. Margarine was the "healthy" replacement for butter. Of course, now we know how that advice turned out. Margarine is full of cancer-causing, artery clogging, heart-destructive trans-fats, and butter has been rehabilitated. So, we sort of made a u-turn on that one.
Trouble is, we need to make a u-turn on a lot of other bad dietary advice. And the first to go, if we want to lose weight and keep it off, as it turns out, is to get quickly away from "eat a balanced meal". Papa's advice to me, to help me manage my abdominal struggles, was correct. Yet it ran counter to everything else he taught my older sister. And she and Mom, and Dad have increasingly struggled with their weight, and high blood pressure, their entire lives.
The Politics of "Balanced Meals"
Once you accept that it is important to get a lot of varied nutrients into your body, the question is "when?"
The answer as to "when" to eat nutrients turned out to be very political. Every industry wanted in on the act. The breakfast cereal companies wanted their meals to be paramount. The dinner guys wanted their meat or their potato or their asparagus to be included. Every food producer wanted to be a potential part of every meal.
The key point, politically, was not to set up a dietary guideline that keep key industry players out of any one meal. Thus, the politically correct idea was born: "balanced meals."
Everyone won. Every industry – cereals and grains, meats and poultry, vegetables and fruits, nuts and legumes. If the government told you to eat "balanced" in every meal, every food-player had a chance to have their food on your plate – for every meal. Perfect solution. Politically.
(The FDA even passed a regulation just a few years ago that breakfast cereals couldn't have 100% of all required nutrients added – except for those like Total® that were already doing it. The theory was that if you consumed all your required nutrients before noon, where would that leave the other food companies trying to push their nutrient-laden foods on you to eat later in the day?)
Trouble is, there was not a shred of scientific evidence to support the "balanced meal" concept. The idea that you had to get EVERY KEY VITAMIN AND MINERAL IN EVERY MEAL, was based on NO SCIENCE whatsoever. None.
In fact, the science said, (especially back 50 years when all this really took root), at worst, that as long as you got the nutrients in your body sometime during the day, you would be just fine. We now know that if you get some nutrients just 2-3-4 times a week, even some important life-enhancing nutrients (like omega-3), your body will still thrive.
The idea that you had to get every nutrient in every meal is bogus.
A "balanced meal" is a political statement, not good dietary advice.
So, is there a down-side to "balanced meals"?
The short answer is: YES.
There are times of day that your body can use certain nutrients better than other times a day – at night for example.
But the real problem to "balanced meals" is the weight-gain factor.
What is now known is that when you eat a starchy carbohydrate with a protein, (meat with potato, rice with fish) in the same meal, it can cause weight gain (it doubles the amount of insulin your body produces, and extra insulin is a fat generator).
When you eat fruits with other foods, same thing happens. (There are several other fat-making combinations, but these will suffice for now.)
The problem is not so much the food choices. It is the foods you eat together.
But it is literally "politically incorrect" to say that today. So we see Internet ads for "secret diets" that involve mixing up what you eat, and food combining, and scores of books on the subject going back to the 70's. These are just manifestations that the "balanced meal" advice we are getting is flawed, and companies are trying to fill the credibility-gap with there own half-solutions, and guru-led self-serving pseudo -science.
Now much of the data attacking the "balanced meal" concept has been around for a very long time (even some starting in the 1920's when insulin was first discovered). Over the last 30 years a ton of research has been done on this, and published in the medical journals (we have a full-time science researcher on our staff, and the primary author of ScaleDown For Life™, whose sole job is to keep track of all this science – so we track all the latest dietary research very closely).
But the science of "balanced meals" is still taking a back seat to politics. As recently as the beginning of the Bush (Jr.) presidency, the FDA had one food guide pyramid based on the science of food, and a much different one from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), based on the politics of food. Can you guess which won out? Mr. Bush fired the FDA commissioner (Kessler) and the USDA got its way. (By the way, have you seen the "new-improved" confusing food guide pyramid they produced? Neither has anyone else.)
You have to learn how to eat for health and weight loss
The point here is not government bashing. The point is, if you want to understand what to eat, to keep you healthy AND lose weight (or at least not gain weight) you are going to have to rely on something other than government publications and the food industry to tell you what you ought to be eating.
Papa was right. "Your body will not allow you to eat like other people," he had told me. "You need to eat small meals, and just one kind of food at a time, or you will cause yourself digestive problems." He forgot to add: "If you eat like me and mom, you will gain weight like us."
With Papa's excess weight and high blood pressure, and Mom's expanding girth, there is a lesson in how NOT to eat for all of us: Don't eat "balanced meals."
That is my report to you on what I learned about "balanced meals."
(And why I'm glad I have a double surgery scar to remind me every day that "eating healthy" is the opposite of eating a "balanced meal".)
PS: On the road to losing weight, you have to lose the "fat between your ears" if you want to keep the weight off permanently. You can't just diet, lose some pounds, then go back to what you were doing before. Isn't that the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
How do you control your appetite?
Conclusion 21: Don't Eat a Balanced Meal
How do you control your appetite:
Rule 22: Eat Grasshoppers with your Cereal
VP Programs Development, ScaleDown for Life
VP Education, GoZonkers Inc.
Founder, CelebrateLifeNutrition.com – Satisfy Your Hunger
©2009 Laura Gontchar. All Rights Reserved.