Understanding Food Groups


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) 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 9 servings of fruit and vegetables each day. This sounds like a lot, but it's really only about 2 cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables.

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 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 ounces or more of whole grains per day. 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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Meat and 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. But meat also has high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, and a study done in 2006 found that eating more than 1 1/2 servings of red meat per day may increase breast cancer risk. The USDA guidelines recommend 5 1/2 ounces of meat (defined to include chicken and fish) per day, or meat substitutes (vegetable protein products) or beans if you prefer not to eat meat. 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, or beans 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 one of these options every day:

  • 3 cups of low-fat/fat-free milk or yogurt (that's a little more than 3 6-ounce containers of yogurt)
  • 4.5 ounces of low-fat/fat-free natural cheese, such as cheddar (about 4 slices)
  • 6 ounces of low-fat or fat-free processed cheese, such as American (about 6 slices)

Alternatively, you can mix portions of the above choices as long as they add up to the equivalent of the recommended amount. For example:

  • 1 1/2 cups of low-fat/fat-free milk and 3 ounces of processed cheese
  • 1 cup of low-fat/fat-free milk, a 6-ounce container of yogurt, and 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese

Processed cheese has less calcium than natural cheese. That's why you need to eat more of it per day. Processed cheese is made from natural cheese and other ingredients. It is pasteurized and has more moisture so it can be stored longer and melt easier.

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.

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Fats and oils

You need some fat in your diet, but not very much. The USDA guidelines recommend that you get no more than 35% of your daily calories from fat.

There are three main types of fats:

  • Saturated fats are the "bad" fats that raise your cholesterol levels. 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 the "good" fats that help lower your LDL cholesterol. These types of fats are found in fish and 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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