A Healthy Diet

Striking the Right Balance

The equation of energy balance is simple and important. If you take in less energy than your

body requires, you lose weight; when you take in more than you need, you gain weight.

Text by Sophiya Uprety

Everybody does not have the same nutritional requirement. It varies with age, sex, body size and levels of physical activity. Other factors such as the need to lose, maintain, or gain weight also affect how much we need to eat. Estimates provided by the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for the daily calories requirement range from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men. Within each age and sex category, the lower end is for sedentary individuals and the higher end for active individuals. Calorie needs generally decrease for adults as they age due to decreased physical activity as well as reduction in basal metabolic rate that occurs with aging.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding are special times with increased energy requirements of 300 to 500 calories and of key nutrients necessary for growth such as iron, folate and calcium. Yet, these are not times for excess eating either. One gram of carbohydrate or a gram of protein gives 4 calories. A gram of fat gives 9 calories. That is why fat is a concentrated energy source. A lesser known fact is that alcohol contains more calories than food, 7 calories for each gram, but lacks other nutrients! Dietary fibers on the other hand give only 2 calories per gram which explains why fiber rich foods are not only filling but help in weight management as well. Energy and other nutrients are needed to sustain life and perform essential functions. But there has to be a balance in quality, quantity and frequency of diet. Let’s take an analogy of a pair of shoes - too small will pinch and pain, too big will cause you to stumble and fall while if it is just right, there will be comfort. It is exactly the same with nutritional requirements.

The equation of energy balance is simple and important. If you take in less energy than your body requires, you lose weight; when you take in more than you need, you gain weight. When your energy is in perfect balance, you maintain your weight. Excess energy intake, whether from carbohydrates, protein or fats, which are not utilized by the body or expended through physical activities gets stored as fats. Most people become overweight through a slow, gradual weight gain of one to two kilos per year, demonstrating that a slight imbalance of energy is all it takes to result in weight gain over time. In daily life, calculating the exact calories or the amount of other nutrients needed is neither possible nor required. However, it is important to be mindful and follow the general recommendations regarding the quality and quantity of food. Out of a total daily energy requirement, 50-60% should come from carbohydrates (wholesome cereals, vegetables and fruits), 15-20% from protein (egg, legumes, nuts, fish, meat and dairy) 10-20% from fats (vegetable oil and naturally present fats in protein rich foods.) That way, the requirements for vitamins and minerals will also be met. Three meals a day with one or two healthy snacks in between is ideal. For energy balance and optimal weight, focus on nutrient-rich foods with the right proportions, regular mealtimes and of course physical activity.

Maintaining a balanced diet in each stage of life is important for health and well-being. As the saying goes, ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ It is the same difference between devising a diet plan versus conveying a holistic understanding about good nutrition. Diet plans and calorie counting do not work in real life and are only temporary. You can lose weight for some time but it is not sustained. Any fad diet that omits an entire food group or recommends consuming one or two excessively is not a healthy proposition. Dieting and depriving yourself of foods do not fall within the realm of good nutrition.

We have to enjoy foods to enjoy life. The natural way is to consume the right variety of foods in the right balance. There is no other better alternative!

The author has been working in the field of public health nutrition for more than a decade with UN agencies such as UNICEF, WFP and UNHCR. She is also a freelance nutritionist.