Food Groups: Your Tool for Healthy Eating

Wheel of Food GroupsA diet is complex and comprehensive. There are numerous traditional nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, fats, and carbohydrates), plus thousands of non-traditional nutrients found in foods that contribute to health. Foods such as broccoli, carrots and apples are certainly healthy, but a diet of only these foods would not be healthy. A diet must have variety to supply all the nutrients required for good health. This is why the Five Food Groups were created.

The Five Food Groups

It is recommended that we eat a variety of foods from each of the Five Food Groups. Each food has differing amounts of the aforementioned traditional and non-traditional nutrients. Therefore, we must eat a variety of foods from all food groups in order to obtain optimal nutrition from our diet. So, we should eat a variety of foods within each Food Group as well as from each Group. The Five Food Groups are comprised of the Protein Group, the Fruit Group, the Vegetable Group, the Dairy Group and the Grains Group.

The Protein Group consists of meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, nuts, seeds and processed soy products. These are foods that supply substantial amounts of protein to your diet. You should choose low-fat cuts of meat and poultry and trim any excess fat, because most of it is saturated, the kind that’s bad for your heart. Most seafood (especially cold-water varieties such as trout, salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies and mackerel), nuts and seeds contain a good supply of omega-3 fats, which can be good for your health. Limit processed meats such as lunchmeats, sausage, hot dogs and ham because they are laden with sodium. Many processed meats also contain nitrates which are believed to be a potential cancer risk.

The Fruit Group includes any fruit or 100% fruit juice. Fresh, canned, frozen or dried forms all count. Since dried fruit is very concentrated in both nutrients and calories, a serving is only ¼ cup, as opposed to ½ cup for other forms. Although 100% fruit juice has a lot of nutrients that are good for you, eating the whole fruit is better because you are getting fiber and other nutrients that the juice doesn’t have. Moderate amounts of fruit and fruit juice are OK, but don’t overdo them because they have plenty of calories, due to their natural sugars.

Vegetable Group members include any vegetable or 100% vegetable juice. Just as the Fruit Group, veggies also have various acceptable forms – raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, canned or dried. Vegetables are very nutrient-dense, meaning they have many nutrients for a small amount of calories. Eating a variety of different kinds will help ensure that you acquire many of these diverse nutrients for optimal health.

The Dairy Group is sometimes called the Milk Group because its members are all derived from milk. Foods in this group are high in calcium; whereas milk products that are not high in calcium – cream cheese, butter, cream – are not included. Examples of foods in this group are milk, cheese, milk-based desserts (ice cream, ice milk, frozen yogurt, pudding), and yogurt. Since milk comes from an animal, most of its fat will be saturated, the kind that’s bad for your heart. Therefore, it is wise to make low-fat (1% fate) or fat-free choices.

Foods made of grains, such as wheat, rice, oats, barley or other types of cereal grains, are included in the Grain Group. Foods represented in this group are breads, cereals, oatmeal, pasta, tortillas and good ‘ole Southern grits. Grains can be whole or refined. Whole grains contain the bran and germ and provide fiber, iron and many B vitamins and minerals. Refined grains have the bran and germ removed, along with the aforementioned nutrients. The B vitamins and iron are added back after processing, but not the fiber. The implications of this are discussed in the chapter on fiber.

The number of servings of each Food Group you should eat depends on the number of calories you can consume each day and maintain a healthy weight. See the US Department of Agriculture site  to find out how many calories and Food Group servings that you should consume. If you make low-fat choices you will still have what is called “discretionary calories” to use, if you wish to indulge on a candy bar, soda, cake, or favorite dessert! Also visit the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid at for specific choices to make from within the Food Groups.

The Food Groups represent a tool we can all use to ensure we are eating a healthy diet and getting all the nutrients we need, without having to count calories or worry about whether we’re getting enough of the many substances in foods that are important for our health.

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