What are the different food groups and how can you ensure you get the right amounts of each into your daily diet?
Eating a variety of foods from each of the five food groups can help you to enjoy a healthy, more-balanced diet. But what are the different food groups, and how much of each food group should we be eating every day?
Research from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans(opens in new tab) shows that 80% of Americans’ diets are too low in fruit, vegetables, and dairy. While we are getting enough grain and protein foods, more than half of us aren’t getting them from varied sources, such as whole grains or plant-based proteins.
We’ve looked at the latest research to make it easier to identify the major food groups, and find out which foods don’t make the grade nutritionally. Plus, we’ve got expert tips and ideas for making healthy swaps that can last a lifetime.
There are five main food groups set out by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, under the MyPlate(opens in new tab) recommendations. Experts advise that everyone should be eating a variety of foods from each of these food groups, from around six months of age through to older adulthood, although recommended daily amounts vary by age, sex, and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
How much? On average, we should be eating between 1.5 and 2.5 cups of fruit(opens in new tab) every day. Figures differ slightly for younger children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and older men. MyPlate advises filling half your daily plate with fruits and vegetables and focusing on whole fruits in favor of juices or smoothies.
Fruits are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin C, folate, potassium, and dietary fiber. They contain no cholesterol and are low in sodium, fat, and calories.
A cup of pure fruit juice or half a cup of dried fruit counts as one cup from the fruit food group, as do the following examples:
- 1 small apple or half a large apple
- 1 large banana
- 10 dates
- 5 fresh figs
- 22 seedless grapes
- 2-3 kiwis
- 10 kumquats
- 1 large orange
- 8 large strawberries
- a small wedge of watermelon
How much? On average, we should be eating between two and four cups of vegetables(opens in new tab) every day. Figures differ slightly for younger children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, and older people. MyPlate advises filling half your daily plate with fruits and vegetables and varying the range of veggies that you eat as much as possible.
Vegetables are essential sources of potassium, dietary fiber, folate, and vitamins, such as A and C. They’re also low in fat and calories.
A cup of raw or cooked veggies or vegetable juice, or 2 cups of raw leafy salad greens can count as 1 cup from the vegetable food group, as do the following examples:
- 2 cups of raw leafy greens, such as rocket, cilantro, romaine, chard or spinach
- 1 cup of cooked bok choy, broccoli, or cooked spinach
- 3 whole pimento
- 1 large bell pepper
- 1 large baked sweet potato or 1 medium baked or boiled white potato
- 1 large tomato
- 1 large ear of corn or a cup of kernels (fresh or frozen)
- 1 avocado
- 1 cup of green beans
- 1 cup of mushrooms
How much? On average, we should be eating between 3oz-5oz of grains every day. Figures differ slightly for younger children. MyPlate advises that at least half the grains on your plate are whole grains.
Grains are important sources of dietary fiber, complex carbohydrates, and many B vitamins, as well as being rich in iron.
One slice of bread, a cup of breakfast cereal, or half a cup of cooked rice or pasta can be considered as a 1oz equivalent on your daily plate, as do the following examples:
- 1 mini bagel (2in)
- 1 small biscuit
- half a cup of cooked bulgur wheat, couscous, or quinoa
- 1 packet of instant oatmeal
- 3 cups of popped popcorn
- 1 small chapati
- 1 pancake
- 1 corn tortilla
- 1 small muffin
- 5 wholewheat crackers
How much? On average, we should be eating between 5oz-7oz of protein every day. Figures differ for younger children.
MyPlate advises that you should vary your sources of protein to include foods such as seafood, lean or low-fat meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, beans, soy products, and lentils. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also suggest replacing processed or high-fat meats with beans, peas, and lentils.
Protein is an important building block in the body, essential for the healthy development of bones, muscles, and skin. It’s especially important for growing children.
One ounce of most meats and fish, including deli meat, poultry, and game, are considered to be a 1oz equivalent on your daily plate, as are the following examples:
- 1 egg
- half an ounce of nuts
- half an ounce of seeds
- a tablespoon of nut butter or sesame paste
- half a cup of cooked beans, peas, or lentils
- 6 tablespoons of hummus
- 1oz of cooked tempeh
- 2oz of tofu
- a quarter cup of baked beans
- 1 falafel patty
How much? On average, we should be consuming 3 cups of dairy every day. Figures differ for younger children and pregnant or breastfeeding women.
MyPlate advises that foods made with milk that are low in calcium, such as butter, sour cream, and cream cheese, are not considered to be part of the dairy food group. Vegetarian and vegan dairy alternatives, such as fortified soy milk and yogurt, are included because of their nutritional value.
Dairy foods are a great source of calcium, vitamins A and D, protein, potassium, zinc, and magnesium. Dairy foods and foods high in calcium are vital for growing children, as they support the healthy development of bones and teeth.
A cup of milk, yogurt, or soy milk counts as a cup of dairy on your daily plate, as do the following examples:
- 1 and half ounces of hard cheese, such as cheddar, Parmesan, or mozzarella
- a third of a cup of grated cheese
- half a cup of ricotta cheese
- 2 cups of cottage cheese
- 2oz of queso fresco
- 2 slices of queso blanco
- half a pint of calcium-fortified soy milk
Non-dairy alternatives that also contain calcium include:
- leafy greens, such as collard, spinach, and kale
- canned fish, such as sardines and salmon with bones
- calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as rice or almond milk.
Foods that fit into the ‘other’ food group tend to be foods that have little to no nutritional value, and only provide empty calories. These include foods such as:
- soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, and other beverages
- sugary treats such as cookies, cakes, and candies
- fried or fatty foods and junk foods
- oils and solid fats, such as butter
While we all like to enjoy a sweet or savory treat from time to time, it’s important to keep these empty calorie foods to an occasional treat, and not make them part of your everyday diet. If you really can’t resist, try halving what you’d usually have, and see if that satisfies your craving.