The Balanced Diet

On June 2, 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the new food group guidance system called Choose MyPlate. The plate replaces the pyramid to help Americans implement healthy eating habits. MyPlate follows the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, suggesting that you fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables and fill the other half with whole grains and a source of lean protein.

Along with this plate of food is a side serving of a low-fat or nonfat dairy product. Foods and ingredients to use only sparingly consist of saturated fats, sodium, added sugars, and alcohol.

For the first time the picture of a balanced diet should make sense because you can visually see it just as you do when we eat it—on a plate, rather than listed on a pyramid. Along with the picture of a balanced meal, the dietary guidelines suggest you eat what you like and take time to eat to truly enjoy the meal. Eating too fast, eating on the go, and grazing mindlessly may cause you to eat too many calories.

Even as a runner, it can be helpful to use smaller-sized plates, bowls, and glasses to help you control portions. Even a runner might overeat more than the body needs simply because the food was right in front of you and not because your body was necessarily hungry for it.

What is a calorie?

Technically, a food calorie is a unit of energy—the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. The number of calories in a food portion tells us how much energy a food potentially gives the body. If this energy is not used by the body, it typically is stored in the body as fat for later use. Calories are used to fuel the body, including the heart, lungs, brain, and skeletal muscle. The number of calories we need varies based on our age, gender, size, health, and activity level.

A balanced diet means more than just one plate of food that meets diverse nutritional needs. It means eating this plate of food or a mini-plate of this food regularly spaced throughout the day, starting with first thing in the morning (breakfast). Given that the goal is to eat moderate amounts each time you eat, it is likely that you may be consuming a plate or mini-plate of food anywhere from three to six times a day.

Let's break this plate down further to best understand the nutrients you need for running. There are six nutrients needed to sustain life—water, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals.


Water is the most important nutrient for the body. Your body consists of 60–70 percent water, and without water you would die. Water is responsible for transporting other nutrients to your muscles and excreting wastes through the kidneys and other organs for disposal. Water lubricates joints and helps cushion the body's organs. Water helps regulate your body temperature. Water also is essential for maintaining healthy skin.


The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide energy to the body, especially the energy for brain and nervous system functioning. Carbohydrates also provide energy to the muscles needed in activity. Foods containing carbohydrates are categorized as complex and simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates are typically referred to as starches. They are formed when sugars link together to form a complex chain of sugar molecules. Potatoes, rice, pasta, breads, legumes, and other starchy vegetables are referred to as complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbohydrates are sugars such as table sugar, corn syrup, honey, and even milk sugar as well as fruit, fruit juice, and some vegetables. Simple carbohydrates are made of either single or double sugar molecules that are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. Other examples of simple carbohydrates are candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, syrups, and most sports drinks and gels.


Dietary fiber is the non-digestible portion of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Fiber has many benefits such as promoting normal bowel movements, regulating blood sugar, lowering cholesterol, and reducing risk of certain cancers. Fiber holds water as it moves through the digestives system. Make sure you drink enough fluid when consuming a high-fiber diet.

Carbohydrates can also be classified by how fast they are absorbed. Quick-absorbing carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels quickly. These carbohydrates are good recovery carbohydrates after a run. Examples of quick-absorbing carbohydrates include baked potatoes, honey, white bread, and refined cereal. Slow carbohydrates are digested more slowly and cause a more gradual rise in blood sugar. These slow-absorbing carbohydrates are more sustaining and are best consumed before exercise for sustained energy. Examples of slow-absorbing carbohydrates include apples, apricots, oatmeal, and dried beans.


Proteins are the building blocks of muscle and are present in every cell of the body, including organs, hair, and skin. Protein is made from amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids necessary to form the protein found in muscle, organs, hormones, and enzymes. These eight amino acids must come from your diet since your body can't make them. Food sources of protein that contain all essential amino acids include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and soybeans. Grains and other plant foods do not contain all of the essential amino acids and must be combined with other foods containing the missing amino acids to form a complete protein.



Hydrogenated fats are processed fats that act similar to saturated fats. Hydrogenation is the process of adding hydrogen to polyunsaturated fats to give food a longer shelf life and to add flavor. Baked goods such as cookies and crackers, margarines, and certain peanut butters contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats.

Fat is a nutrient that is a part of every cell membrane. Fat contains essential fatty acids needed for hormone production. Fat in the diet allows fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) to be absorbed into the body. Fat is often misunderstood because fat has been associated with heart disease.

Through decades of research we now understand that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are protective and important in a healthy diet, while saturated fats are harmful to our health. Examples of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, canola oil, and nuts. Polyunsaturated fats consist of corn oil, soy oil, and fatty fish. Examples of saturated fat are butter, cream, cheese, and meat fat. Consuming lean meats and low-fat dairy are helpful ways to limit saturated fat.

Vitamins and Minerals

Both vitamins and minerals are necessary for life. The body cannot make vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are sometimes referred to as the “sparkplugs” of our diet—vitamins are effective in allowing our body to release energy but they contain no energy value in and of themselves. Minerals support vital processes such as oxygenation of the blood, heart rhythm, and bone structure. The best way to consume vitamins and minerals is through a wholesome, balanced diet.

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