Balancing your meals is one of the most important parts of nutrition. It may take a while to get out of the bad habit of thinking in terms of ingredients, rather than meals.
“Is this food good?” or “why did X get a bad grade, when it is supposed to be healthy?" is a common question we get, and the grading system is designed to address this by rewarding properly balanced meals that check all your requirements. If a meal is highly processed, low in nutrients or missing an important nutrient then it will get a lower grade.
The optimal strategy for most people will be to balance each meal, so it stands up on its own (without causing blood sugar spikes or making you tired) and also contributes towards your longer-term goals (like daily and long-term nutrient targets for protein, fiber, etc.)
The cool thing is when your individual meals are high-quality, other things seem to figure themselves out — your total calorie intake balances itself due to your hunger hormones being optimized, your body functions well because it has all the vitamins and minerals it needs, your gut stays healthy because it has the right fiber it needs, your muscles continue to grow after workouts because you have enough protein, and so on... without needing to micromanage each of these individually.
To help with this, we’ve created a simple but powerful metabolic coach in the app as part of the Food XRAY analysis. This will help to illustrate the composition of each meal, and warn you of potential deviations. This can alert you if something is too processed, low in nutrients or likely to spike your blood sugar to problematic levels. Occasionally that can be fine, but if it is a frequent occurence then that is something that needs attention.
What are the actual rules and guidelines to follow? We’ve tried to break them down into 6 simple princples. The metabolic coach will grade you on all of these to provide an unbiased and empirical measure of how you’re doing.
- Energy Balance
- Food Processing
- Muscle Synthesis
- Nutrient Density
- Hunger Hormones
- Glucose Levels
Each of these have entire guides where you can read how they work and how to manage it properly. All of those together will determine your grade. For example, if you do 3/6 of them then that’s at 50%.
If everything is done perfectly then the grade will be close to 100%, or an “A+”. You should know what an A+ meal looks like, and be able to make one if you want to. Ideally you should have some A meals in your rotation that you also enjoy, and ideally can easily have.
Of course, not every meal needs to be an A+. You could add some desserts or a drink perhaps, that brings it down to a C for example. Note that energy balance meter is shown more for your information rather than a sign that it is good or bad. Whether your meals should be large or small depend mostly on the context of what you’re working on at the time — whether trying to lose bodyfat, stay in maintenance or add muscle.
A simpler checklist to see if your meal is balanced could be: where are my protein, fats and fibers (healthy carbs)?
Let’s explore how it works with some real world examples...
Some A meals from our members
We’ll look at some example meals and how they scored, also looking at which ingredients help to balance the meal in each category (protein, carbs and fat). Generally there must be at least one item in each category, but often there can be more.
Sushi, fish, yogurt, and more
Mixing many things is a good way to increase your nutrient density and find good balance! We like this one for its color and nutrient variety. Just one or two of these items on their own may not be a great meal (ie. just some sushi, or just yogurt and berries) but together it balances and adds up nicely.
Protein: Snapper, Tempeh, 0% fat greek yoghurt. Lean and complete.
Carbs: Veggie sushi, potato, beans, berries and granola.
Fat: Oil, almonds.
A great salad
Protein: Salmon, lentils
Carbs: Rice, kale, sauerkraut
This meal has a lot of good things in one plate, which is a good prototype for a salad. The salmon doubles as both a source of protein and fat. Saurkraut also helps with being a fermented food! And the variety of colors between beets and dark green vegetables helps ensure high fiber and nutrient variety!
A high protein meal
This meal has 3 different protein sources, which is awesome. Especially for someone who is focusing on gaining muscle, maxing this out is important. Even then, it ends up at only 40% protein, with a decent amount of energy coming from carbs and fat. The addition of a half plate of veggies helps check the box on various nutrients including fiber, and ensures the food processing is minimal.
Protein: Chicken, egg, whey protein
Carbs: Pasta, pasta sauce, veggies
Fat: Egg yolk, cheese
Chicken, spinach and roasted veggies
This is a simple but well-balanced meal, and you can see each part takes up literally a third of the plate. It is 35% protein which helps for muscle protein synthesis (great for preserving muscle mass while losing bodyfat, or after resistance training) but a large serving of vegetables is also helpful in keeping the grade high and finding balance.
Protein: Chicken thighs
Fat: Chicken, oil, butter
Smoked salmon, Chicken thighs, veggies
This meal is a bit larger, so for someone who is trying to lose bodyfat it may be high in calories. However, if it is the main meal of the day or the person is trying to gain muscle (as was in this case) then those extra calories are useful!
Though there is bread (which is technically a processed food), the large servings of steamed green beans, zucchini, and roasted butternut squash helps to keep the food processing meter towards the right side.
Protein: Salmon, chicken thighs.
Carbs: Veggies, crisp breads
Fat: Chicken, oil, butter
A smaller salad
This meal has a great variety of whole-food ingredients, including a couple protein sources. Still it is quite small in total (less than 500 calories). For a smaller person, or for someone who is trying to stay in a calorie deficit and lose bodyfat, this could be a great strategy.
The salmon and cottage cheese here double as both sources of protein and fats. The large amount of veggies along with healthy fats will help ensure feeling full afterwards.
Protein: Salmon, cottage cheese
Carbs: veggies, salmon cake
Fat: Oil, salmon, cottage cheese
Common Bad Grades
Imbalanced meals often don’t have (enough) protein. This includes the common culprits you may imagine...
- A bag of chips
- A chocolate bar
- A cocktail
It is important to understand why these meals are problematic. In this case there are multiple reasons, you can go down the checklist — not enough protein, highly processed, high in sugar, no fiber — and all these things compound to a low grade for the meal.
Processed or imbalanced meals
It is important to consider the actual nutrients in what you’re eating, and their ratios. For the grades, we look at this rather than just the name of an item. For example, even the mighty “salad” (which people generally think of as healthy) could range from an F to an A depending on what is in it.
Salads of course can be great, and often are as seen in the examples above. But some can end up being graded as highly-processed foods (like a packaged dressing with lots of sugar or fat), or if they are missing important components like protein, and can still get a lower grade for being an imbalanced meal.
- Highly processed foods, like a salad in-a-bag kits
- Packaged high-fat sauces and dressings
- Croutons or other bread
- A salad without any protein sources
This is an example where looking at the actual meal is important, as opposed to just the name or idea. With the right balance, it is possible to make a good meal out of almost anything — even a pizza or burger — or with an imbalanced composition or highly-processed ingredients even something “healthy” like a salad or yogurt could go wrong.
Sugary drinks are extremely problematic, for many reasons including spiking your blood sugar (they get processed too rapidly without the fiber from fruit to slow things down), lowering your nutrient density, increasing your calories, and more. Here are some common ways sugar can bring down your meal grade:
- Drinking sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages
- Fruit juice or dried fruits (high processing, excess sugar)
- A high amount of fruit on its own (in a meal would be better)
- A processed yogurt with lots of sugar
In your Trends view you can also keep an eye on your average sugar, as well as set your target. A bit of sugar from good sources like berries or honey or some fruit is totally fine (a whole banana has 14g for example), but once processed foods or added sugars get in the mix it is easy for your daily intake to go way up, potentially into the hundreds of grams. If this ends up as more than 50-60g per day, that is too high and probably needs attention.
Adding alcohol or other processed foods
- Adding wine, cocktail or a beer to a meal
See the alcohol guide (at www.ethanol.guide) for more info about alcohol and how it reduces your meal quality.