An unbalanced or imbalanced diet is one that consists of either too much or too little protein, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, minerals and fluids – the essential components of a healthy and nutritious diet.
Over a prolonged period the effects of an unbalanced diet can have negative and serious effects on one’s health, mind, body and wellbeing as the direct or cumulative effects of an over reliance, or overindulgence in some cases, take their toll.
We are all responsible for what we consume but for many of us what we eat – and by extension our lifestyle – has become habitual: a routine or practice that we find difficult to give up. The weekend bottle of wine, the snacks at work, the easy-to-prepare food, the lack of exercise, the Friday night out after work. Before we know it we’ve put on a few pounds and find them difficult to shed because our habits have become so much part of our lives.
Habits are an essential part of life. Some are good, some not so good. So, let’s take a look into what an unbalanced diet is and help you make a judgement as to whether your diet might be considered balanced and healthy, or not.
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What is an Unbalanced Diet?
We all know we need to eat a balanced diet – we are bombarded on a daily basis – but what is an unbalanced diet? Do you know?
At the most basic level, an unbalanced diet means your body is unable to extract the full range of nutrients it needs from the food you’re eating. It may also mean that some of the food you’re consuming actually contains ingredients harmful to health.
Typical Examples of an Unbalanced Diet
An obviously unhealthy thing but one that many of us enjoy, is alcohol.
Alcoholic drinks, from beers to wines, through to lagers and spirits have little nutritional value. What they do contain are empty calories and lots of sugars, which can cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly and then just as quickly to plummet.
As alcohol causes increased urine production a dehydrating effect can result, which could also lead to a dry mouth, thirst and dizziness and potentially to an electrolyte imbalance.
And who amongst us can’t relate to the alcohol munchies – those occasions when eating a family pack of crisps or cooking chips at midnight seems like a perfectly sensible idea?
Drinking is a big part of our Western culture and having the odd tipple isn’t going to cause a huge problem.
However, when it becomes a habit – when it becomes a daily routine or w eekly routine which impacts on other healthy habit – we need to take stock. Calories can start to pile up, we feel less inclined to exercise as it gets in the way, and the compound effect is what we might loosely call ‘letting ourselves go’. Our bodies get used to what we eat and drink and there’s a danger we need to drink more to feel the same level of satisfaction.
Cakes, Sweets, Pastries, Chocolates etc
Who amongst us doesn’t love something sweet?
As a desert at the end of a meal. A pick-you-up during the day. A sweet snack to tide you over to the next meal. Or, simply a reward (think how often we promise a child a sweet as a reward for good behaviour).
Craving something sweet is ingrained in us from a very young age and the body converts the fat and sugars from cakes and biscuits etc into energy very rapidly, giving us that immediate boost.
The problem is, that energy crashes very quickly, causing the body to crave another fix of quickly convertible food – so, you reach for another cake/pastry/chocolate bar.
It’s a vicious circle.
Less Obvious Unbalanced Diets
An unbalanced diet might also be the lack of fruit and vegetables, or the over-consumption of breads, pastas and carbohydrates and the complete absence of proteins and vitamins. It might also be drinking too much tea and coffee or ‘full fat’ or Diet Coke.
Some unbalanced diets also mean you’re underweight such as an unnatural obsession with fewer carbohydrates and a very low carb diet, a caveman diet or one that relies on one food group over another. Some of these may help you lose weight but in actual fact be quite detrimental. Some people actually need to put on weight due to their poor diet.
As specialists in weight loss we’re more concerned with diets and habits that help you lose weight though it’s important to realise that poor diets can also make you underweight.
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The Obesity Epidemic
The term ‘obesity epidemic’ is frequently bandied around in the media and it’s true: obesity levels in adults have risen from 15% in 1993 to 26% in 2016. Around 1 in 5 children under the age of 5 are classed as obese and this rises to 1 in 5 by age 11.
“Obesity is the new smoking”, said Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England. In 2015 “It is a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.”
Obesity is usually measured by referring to the Body Mass Index (BMI). However, this is not always reliable as it takes no account of the fact that lean muscle is actually heavier than fat – meaning a super-fit athlete could measure as obese under BMI classifications.
An alternative, or sometimes corroborative, measure is waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio (waist measurement divided by hip measurement) as this gives an indication of the distribution of fat on the body.
Is the Obesity Epidemic Caused by Diet?
Eating habits have definitely changed since the 1980s which is when obesity levels really started to pick up in the UK. More and more of us are eating on the go (which, again, is a factor in an unbalanced diet), we don’t leave our desks at lunchtime and we rely increasingly on convenience foods.
These are typically foods high in sugars, additives, calories and salt and low on proteins, vitamins and minerals. When these become part of our daily lives (five days a week at work and a quick meal in the evening) it’s easy to see how it can get out of hand.
These are precisely the habits we need to change.
Families also rarely sit around the dining table and share a homemade evening meal so children never learn that eating should be a social occasion as well as simply a time to fill up.
More often than not we eat in front of the TV, meaning we are not consuming our meals in a ‘conscious’ fashion and thus often carry on eating past the point of fullness because we’re tuned into whatever we are watching instead of our bodies.
Fat vs Carbs – the Eternal Debate
Coincidentally, the 1980s is also when the diet gurus determined that fat was BAD and carbs were GOOD thus instigating the low fat ‘revolution’.
The problem with this scenario though is that fat makes things taste good (as well as satiates) and so in order to make people enjoy their low-fat options manufacturers needed to add something to products to improve the flavour – this was sugar.
Sugar (or low calorie versions of) cause the energy peaks and troughs described above. And, importantly, sugar doesn’t fill you up in quite the same way as fat – you need more to satisfy your hunger and so the vicious sugar cycle begins.
Low fat diets also offer few health benefits when it comes to disease prevention as was originally believed. In fact, quite the contrary seems to be the case. The reliance on carbohydrates, particularly from foods like white bread, rice and pasta which rapidly convert to sugars in the body, actually increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease, whilst also causing weight gain.
That’s not to say that high fat diets are any better for health – it all depends on the type of fat.
It’s a balancing act with no over reliance on one particular food group.
Trans-fats (such as those found in processed foods like shop bought cakes, biscuits and other baked goods) and, to a lesser extent saturated fats (like those in fatty cuts of meat as well as dairy products) have been shown to cause weight gain.
Whereas monounsaturated fats (as in olive oil, avocados and certain nuts) and polyunsaturated fats (in oily fish, seeds and nuts) have been shown to have a number of health benefits. They can help with weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease and decrease inflammation.
In a word or two therefore the answer is ‘no, not entirely’, the obesity epidemic is not entirely caused by our diet. While our diets have changed, so have out lifestyles and their combination is a sure fire way to gain weight.
What are the Effects of an Unbalanced Diet?
Obesity is one major possible outcome of eating an out of balance diet and there are proven risks from being overweight.
However not all unbalanced diets will cause weight gain – you could eat only apples, it would be an unhealthy and unbalanced diet, but you would be unlikely to put on much weight!
A long-term failure to eat well and correctly nourish your body could result in:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular problems
- Difficulty sleeping and tiredness
- Mood swings
- Joint pain
- Skin problems
- Loss of libido
- Difficulty with physical activity
The good news is that you can turn things around and (if you need to) lose weight by learning to eat better.
And much of this begins with the habits we’ve taught ourselves.
What is a Balanced Diet?
So what, therefore, is a balanced diet? I hear you ask.
The simple definition of a balanced diet is your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs from the foods you eat in order to maintain a healthy performance.
It should be simple, shouldn’t it? But so many of us are lacking in basic nutrients (some of it because actually the food we eat isn’t as nutrient rich as it used to be due to soil depletion) but mainly because we are not eating what we should.
Your body needs a whole range of food groups with the necessary amounts of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in order to maintain health.
The Diet Industry
The diet industry has, over the years, come up with all sorts of different regimes which all promise to be the best weight loss program. There’s been:
- Low fat
- Low carb
- High protein
- South Beach
- Intermittent fasting
And many, many more!
What the majority of these ‘miracle’ diets have in common though is that they all hinge around giving up a group (or groups) of food or concentrate on massively restricting calorific intake.
There’s no doubt that following one of those plans rigidly will result in weight loss but, importantly, they are not often sustainable longer term. Not to mention that denying yourself something you love will mean a) you crave it even more and b) giving into ‘temptation’ will become a battle that you will probably lose!
Cutting out food groups could also mean your body is NOT getting the nourishment it needs.
What Your Body Needs for a Healthy Diet
Your body has evolved to require a mix of foods – humans are, by evolution, designed to be omnivores.
So, the good news is that a balanced diet really and truly does mean a little bit of everything! Nothing should be considered off limits but you may need to learn to curb over eating of the stuff you know isn’t good for you.
One thing you should also consider, particularly if you are trying to lose weight, is portion size. In the last 20 years, the size of many popular foods has increased significantly (although we all seem to think chocolate bars have shrunk!).
For example, crumpets have increased 38% in size and by 26 calories and many ready meals are double the size they were in the 1990s.
We have become so used to larger portions that we are now unable to recognise a correct portion size!
A simple way to measure portions is to use your hands:
- Your palm determines your protein portions
- Your fist determines your veggie portions
- Your cupped hand determines your carb portions
- Your thumb determines your fat portions
Foods You Should Include in a Balanced Diet
- Fruit and vegetables – at least 5 portions per day and try to ‘eat a rainbow’ by including lots of different varieties
- Carbohydrates – stick to high fibre and unprocessed wherever possible, so whole grain breads and pastas, and starchy foods like potatoes (skin on)
- Proteins – include nuts, fish, meat, eggs and dairy as well as pulses like beans, lentils and peas
- Milk and dairy – cheese, cream and butter. Non-dairy alternatives too
- Fats and sugars – in moderation and avoid processed (shop bought if you can)
NHS guidelines, Eatwell, are heavily biased towards carbohydrates and starchy foods, constituting a whopping 60% of daily recommend food – if you choose to follow those guidelines ensure that at the very least you opt for whole wheat/whole grain versions.
Sticking to a Balanced Diet and Good Habits
If you’ve been used to eating a certain way, changing to a new regime is going to take some getting used to. The important thing is to stick with it. Real changes in your health and wellbeing will happen once you start eating a balanced and nourishing diet, but they won’t happen overnight.
One simple mantra to hold in your mind is EAT REAL FOOD!
This means that you will have to start to love your kitchen! If your culinary skills are on a par with that of a teenager then consider getting a few lessons. YouTube is a great place to look for videos that will show you how to brush up on your cooking skills.
Websites full of healthy eating recipes abound and even supermarkets often have recipe cards that you can collect.
Include eating healthily as part of a lifestyle makeover, which includes exercise and working on your mindset. Much of improving the way you eat comes down to habit, adopting a positive approach to the changes you make is vital.
If you want some help to begin making the necessary adjustments, I work with a program called Sum Sanos, a 12-month weight loss and life transformation program which could help. It’s not a diet plan, it’s a habit-based intervention programme that will help you to learn how to make the right choices and stick with them for life.
Adopting and maintaining a healthy balanced eating regime, really isn’t complicated – habits can be created as well as broken!
Useful points to remember are:
- Buy fresh ingredients and cook from scratch
- Avoid processed foods
- Cut back or cut out alcohol
- Limit your sugar intake
- Stay away from trans fats
- Don’t deprive yourself!