We believe in the benefits of a "balanced" and "varied" diet. While the best guide to a balanced diet is the USDA food guide pyramid, it is possible for your diet to be balanced, yet not varied. How can you get the advantages of both? And why does it matter?
A diet that is both balanced and varied tends to supply the most nutrients, particularly vitamins, minerals, and fiber; and tends to be lower in empty calories, fat, sugar, and salt.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association tracked the eating habits of 48 healthy men and women, half between the ages of 20 and 30, and half aged 60 to 75. Participants listed all of the foods they had eaten in the previous 24 hours, and then kept a food diary for the next 14 days. All white breads (hamburger buns, rolls, bagels, etc.) were counted as one item, as were all sweets (cookies, cakes, doughnuts, etc.). Most mixed foods, such as chili, were counted as one food, but some were sorted into components (pasta plus tomato sauce, for example). Each fruit or vegetable was counted as a different food.
The diets of the older participants were more varied, containing an average of 70 different foods over 15 days. Among the younger eaters, the men ate 56 different foods, the women 64. The older group also had higher intakes of vitamin C, fiber and vitamin A.
While eating white toast at breakfast, a roll at lunch, and spaghetti for dinner may sound like variety, it's all the same refined flour. Instead, choose whole grains and include both whole wheat and oats in your daily intake. The former is rich in insoluble fiber and the latter in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol.
Meats are very similar nutritionally. A variety of meats does not make your diet varied - the important thing is to stick to lean and minimally processed meats. Varying your dairy intake is not as important as always choosing low-fat or nonfat products. But do vary your fish intake - don't eat canned tuna every day. Variety protects against possible pollutants in certain species.
Variety counts the most in fruit and vegetable categories, because these foods are so rich in micronutrients, and these nutrients vary from species to species. Choose fruits and vegetables that are nutrient-dense: dark leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, root vegetables, bananas, oranges, grapefruits, mangoes, apricots, and berries. It's fine to include less nutritious varieties, such as onions, celery, and cucumbers, as long as the focus remains on the powerhouses.
To find out how your diet stacks up, try keeping a record of what you eat for several days. Pay particular attention to the fruits and vegetables you consume. Are you eating the same two or three fruits day after day? Add variety by putting half a banana and half a kiwi on your breakfast cereal. Buy one new vegetable or fruit at the supermarket every time you shop. Try one or two different vegetables in your usual stir-fry. Add legumes (canned are OK - rinse to remove excess salt) to salads, soups, and pasta sauces. Opt for whole-grain breads and cereals.