Understanding Food Groups

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A healthy diet contains a variety of foods from the following food groups:

Fruits and vegetables

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is recommended by cancer experts as well as registered dietitians. The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend eating 5 or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruits each day to ensure that your cancer risk is as low as it can be. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends about 3 cups of vegetables per day and 2 cups of fruit per day for women (for men the recommendations are 4 cups of vegetables and 2.5 cups of fruit).

Nutrition experts say that variety is key, because different fruits and vegetables have different nutrients. Plus, if you eat too much of one thing, you might get bored. One way to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables is to eat foods with all the colors of the rainbow. Green is broccoli. Red is peppers. Yellow is a banana. Purple is an eggplant. Orange is an orange. Or try to eat dark green vegetables (think spinach, collard greens, or kale) at one meal, and orange (carrots, sweet potatoes, or squash) the next. Cut up an apple into your morning cereal and have a peach with your lunch. Frozen raspberries or blackberries are a yummy dessert. Be creative!

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Whole grains

USDA guidelines recommend 3 to 4 ounces or more of whole grains per day for women (3 to 5 ounces for men). Whole grains still have the bran and the germ (the core of the grain kernel) attached and have more fiber, minerals, and vitamins than refined grains. The refining process removes the bran and germ from the grain.

You can't tell if a food is made from whole grain by looking at its color — you have to read the label. The ingredients should say "whole" or "whole grain" before the grain's name, "whole grain wheat," for example. Brown rice, bulgur, oatmeal, and barley are examples of whole grains that are eaten on their own. Both the American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society recommend choosing whole grains over refined grains. To be considered high in whole grains, bread must have 2 to 3 grams of fiber per slice, and cereals must have at least 6 or more grams of fiber per serving. Some examples are Multi-Bran Chex cereal by General Mills (7 grams of fiber per serving) and Flax and Fiber Crunch cereal by Back to Nature (9 grams of fiber per serving).

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Protein foods (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans)

Meat is a good source of the protein and fatty acids you need for energy and health. Red meat also contains iron, which is especially important for women. USDA guidelines recommend eating 7 ounces of protein foods per day. If you do eat meat, poultry, or fish, try to choose lean cuts and opt for chicken or fish most of the time. If you don't eat meat, you may need to add nuts, seeds, beans, or soy products to your diet to ensure that you're getting enough protein and iron.

Eggs are also included in this category. One egg equals a 1-ounce serving of meat.

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Milk and dairy

The USDA recommends that you eat 3 cup equivalents of dairy foods every day. That could be:

  • 3 cups of milk, fortified soy milk, or yogurt (that's a little more than three 6-ounce containers of yogurt)
  • 4.5 ounces of natural cheese, such as cheddar (about four slices)

The USDA also recommends choosing fat-free or low-fat versions of dairy products.

If you don't like or can't drink milk or milk products, make sure you get enough phosphorus, vitamin A, calcium, and vitamin D from other food sources. Examples include carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, broccoli, dark green leafy vegetables, salmon, sardines, and fortified cereals.

If you are lactose intolerant, you might want to try lactase supplements or lactose-free milk. You also can opt for soy or almond milk.

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Fats and oils

You need some fat in your diet, but not very much. The USDA guidelines recommend consuming about 30 grams of fat per day. The guidelines also recommend that you get no more than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fat.

There are three main types of fats:

  • Saturated fats are found in animal products such as whole milk, cheese, ice cream, fatty meats, and some vegetable oils, such as palm and coconut oils. Saturated fat also includes trans fat, found in shortening, stick (or hard) margarine, cookies, crackers, snack foods, fried foods, doughnuts, pastries, baked goods, and other processed foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats are found in fish and many foods from plants such as vegetables, nuts, and grains, as well as oils made from these nuts and grains (canola, corn, soybean).

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These five food groups can supply you with all the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and strong. You may be wondering where chocolate and some of your other favorite treats fit. Don't worry, they do. You just have to be mindful of when you eat them and how much of them you eat.



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