What does a balanced diet actually look like?

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is a sort of ‘rule’ for eating that author and environmental journalist Michael Pollan coined years ago. It’s often cited in books, articles, social media posts, and podcasts because of its simplicity; a beacon of light in a storm of conflicting and confusing information (some of it scientifically proven, a lot of it not) about what we should eat, when, and why. 

A lot of people have been known to turn to lifestyle and diet factors when traditional western medicine seems to fail them. I know I’m one of them. Having faced some (ostensibly not serious) medical issues that have had GPs and specialists shrugging their shoulders, I’ve spent many a night googling variations of “gut health and ___” – putting these declarative statements out into the ether in the hopes that one of the millions of search results returns something useful. 

The problem, of course, is that I’m not a scientist, so it's no easy task trying to discern between fact and fiction online. By now, I’ve seen it all: if you have [insert symptoms or condition here], try a ketogenic diet, try intermittent fasting, try veganism, try an elimination diet, try Ayurveda, try low-FODMAP, try the Mediterranean diet, try no dairy, no eggs, no soy. Or my favourite, just eat a balanced diet!

This begs an important question, what even is a balanced diet? Broadly speaking, it’s defined as a diet which includes “foods from five food groups and fulfills all of a person’s nutritional needs.” Simple in theory, right? But when you actually set out to eat a balanced diet, it can get a little complicated – running into all sorts of correlated issues to do with allergies and food sensitivies, disordered eating habits, and social norms which have historically dictated what’s in and what’s out. As a result, we use the term “balanced diet” as a sort of coverall, a way of promoting healthy living without having to dissect what that really means from a scientific or social perspective.

The reality is, nutritional science is still fairly new, with the first vitamin having been isolated and chemically defined in 1926. Now, less than 100 years on, we’re still learning a lot, and that might help explain why there’s a new trend in diet culture every few years (or even more frequently). We’re overwhelmed by information, and that can make things really complicated.

So, at a time when there are still so many unknowns, surely there has to be room for a grey area? A way to incorporate some non-traditional techniques (such as Ayurveda, a healing science which originated in India over 5,000 years ago) into our lives in a way that’s reflective of both science and established cultural practice or anecdotal experience.

This is where functional medicine enters the picture: an integrated approach to health that blends natural medicine with substantiated science and focuses on addressing the root cause of disease. Functional medicine rejects a one-size-fits-all approach to health; instead, its grounded in individualised health, and an understanding that wellbeing is fluid, and that it’s up to healthcare to adapt to its patients, not the other way around.

However, it’s important to ensure that any functional medicine physician is actually a certified doctor, and not someone who completed vague ‘medical specialty’ training. This leaves a pretty small pool of practicing doctors (at least in Adelaide), indicating that, at least for now, functional medicine simply isn’t the social norm.

All in all, it remains pretty complicated. I guess until we gain some further clarity, we’re best off sticking to that well-worn message: eat, not too much, mostly plants.


Author's note: this post provides an overview of information from public social media accounts and online resources and is not intended to provide specific health advice. If you would like more information about any of these issues, please consult with your GP or another health professional directly.

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