What Makes a “Complete" Meal From a Nutritional Standpoint?

Health & Wellness By Karla

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With so many different diets and meal recommendations, figuring out what you should be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is harder than it seems. How do you know if what you served on your plate is the right type of foods to fuel your body with? And how to know if it's enough?

What makes a meal "complete" from a nutritional standpoint depends on a variety of factors, from your age and activity levels to culture and health and fitness goals. Nonetheless, there are some rules everyone should follow in order to properly support their overall health and longevity.

Know Your Foods

Before we dive into what your plate should consist of, it's important to learn the major food groups out there and what differs them from one another.All foods can be divided into two major groups: Macronutrients and Micronutrients. Most of them fall into the macronutrient categories which include:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Proteins
  • Fats

Carbohydrates

Carbs are your main source of energy and they can be found in almost every food you can think of. Still, some foods have much higher levels, making them pretty carb-dominant. Those are primarily grains, vegetables, fruit, beans, and legumes, as well as everything packaged containing added sugars and the majority of fast-food products.

When choosing the right carbohydrate quality, it's important to maximize their nutritional values by opting for whole, unprocessed foods, made with complex carbohydrates and lower glycemic index load. That way, you're getting all the benefits from the carbs without spiking your blood sugar levels and causing your insulin response to go haywire.

The best carbohydrate choices for your daily meals are whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes. The current USDA recommendations call for 45 percent to 65 percent of the calories in your diet to come from carbohydrates. So, according to that, in order to eat "complete" meals, you should make sure to have at least two servings of whole grains and two servings of vegetables and fruit at each meal. The dietary guidelines do encourage variety, so try to switch up your carb sources as often as you can.

Proteins

Protein is a macronutrient that creates the main building blocks of our entire organism, literally forming our muscle fibers and cells. Made from 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential for all bodily functions, it's important to make sure you're intaking all of them. The 9 essential amino acids cannot be created by the body itself, so they have to be obtained from outside sources, aka, food.

The National Academy of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day, or just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. Still, that number can change depending on your activity levels, current muscle mass, body weight, age, and dietary choices.

Vegetarians and vegans may have a harder time obtaining all of the 9 essential amino acids as they're rarely all found in plant-based sources, meaning they'll have to learn how to eat the right food combinations, while carnivores only need to worry about the meat quality since animals contain all 9 amino acids.

Choosing organic, grass-fed, sustainably raised meat, dairy, and eggs that contain no hormones or additives is crucial in order to get the best quality protein sources and avoid potential inflammation and infections. Always inquiry where your animal products come from and how they were raised. 

Fats

Healthy dietary fats are a great source of energy, support cell growth, maintain optimal body temperature, and help absorb other nutrients more efficiently. When talking about all the different fats out there, there are some that are better than others, and there are some that should definitely be avoided.

The ones that make the bad list include trans fats and some saturated fats, as they increase the bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, promoting inflammation and an increase in stress hormones. Instead, it's recommended to increase your consumption of monounsaturated fats like olive oil, avocados, and nuts, as well as polyunsaturated fats like salmon, flax seeds, and walnuts.

USDA recommendations state 20% to 35% of total calories should come from fat, although once again, it's important to mention that everything needs to be individually modified according to your specific needs and lifestyle routines.

Micronutrients

When talking about micronutrients, we're thinking of vitamins and minerals that are essential to protect and optimize all systems in our bodies, and the proper amount needs to be obtained from food or in the supplement form.Whole and unprocessed macronutrients have plenty of micronutrients, but in order to get a full spectrum, you'll need to make sure your diet has plenty of variety and colors. Eating the "rainbow" is not a myth, as each color represents a different set of micronutrients, so prioritize that when assembling your meals.

What Should Be On Your Plate?

The USDA replaced their infamous pyramid with MyPlate Plan, a customizable diet plan that helps you learn how and what you should be eating for your specific lifestyle habits and health goals. Although a great way to get some information, it's still possible to learn how to assemble your plate yourself and hit all the nutritional guidelines.

A great rule of thumb to follow is that the best diet for you is the one you can stick to and thoroughly enjoy. There's no real use to eating a specific meal plan if you're hating every aspect of it, pressuring yourself to have six smaller meals per day when you're never feeling satisfied, or if the thought of another day of lean meats and grilled veggies makes you long for cheat days.

Nutritionally, you need to be aware of your macronutrient and micronutrient levels, while at the same time find the frequency and timing of meals that work for you and your schedule: Prefer having three big meals a day with no snacks? Great, make sure all of the meals have carbs, fats, and protein; a variety of vegetables and fiber, with some fruit and nuts along the way.

Those who follow intermittent fasting already know the "feeding window" rules, but need to be smart about food choices and distribution, so they don't end up filling themselves with low-calorie, high-volume foods (like broccoli and cauliflower) which will make their nutritional intake seem higher than it actually is, without leaving enough "space" for other nutrients.

And those who prefer snacking and eating smaller meals throughout the day should schedule out their meals in advance so they're absolutely sure they're getting everything after all of their meals are totaled at the end. 

Creating the "perfect" meal doesn't exist, as everyone's body and preferences are different. Eating whole, unprocessed foods and a variety of colors should be on the top of your list of priorities, while making sure your meals consist of all three major food groups. How you decide to schedule it out is up to you.

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