Understanding the Basic Food Groups

The basic food groups (examples and % of daily calories):

Protein: includes meat (beef, pork, lamb, etc.), poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts; 20% of daily calories

Starch: includes Grains, bread, cereal, rich and pasta; 40% of daily calories

Vegetables: dark-green, peas, read and orange, starchy, other; 6% of daily calories

Fruits: fresh, frozen, dried, citrus, melon, tropical; 6% of daily calories

Dairy: milk, cheese and yogurt; 20% of daily calories

Fats & Oils: solid fats, sugars, oils; 8% of daily calories

 

Protein

Protein gives us the energy to get up and go-and keep going. A lack of protein in our diet can slow growth, reduce muscle mass, lower immunity, and weaken the heart and respiratory system.

  • Protein in food is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body's basic building blocks for growth and energy, and essential for maintaining cells, tissues and organs.
  • Complete and complementary proteins provide all of the essential amino acids will fill you up longer than carbohydrates because they break down more slowly in the digestive process.
    • A complete protein source comes from an animal protein (such as red meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs) and provides all of the essential amino acids.
    • An incomplete protein comes from a vegetable protein (like grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and beans) and is low in one or more essential amino acids.
    • Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide all of the essential amino acids your body needs. For example, rice and dry beans are each incomplete proteins, but together they provide all of the essential amino acids.
    • Research shows that your body can combine complementary proteins that are eaten within the same day. So it is not necessary to eat complementary proteins in the same meal.

 

Here are some guidelines for including protein in your healthy diet:

  • Try different types of protein to open up new options for healthy mealtimes. Examples:
    • Beans: Black beans, navy beans, garbanzos, and lentils are good options.
    • Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios and pecans are great choices.
    • Soy products: Try tofu, soymilk, tempeh and veggie burgers for a change.
    • Avoid salted or sugary nuts and refried beans.
  • Focus on quality sources of protein, like fresh fish, chicken or turkey, tofu, eggs, beans or nuts. When you are having meat, chicken, or turkey, buy meat that is free of hormones and antibiotics.

 

Starch

The foods you eat provide the energy your body needs to function. The main form of energy for your body is carbohydrates. Your body has the easiest time digesting carbohydrates like sugar and starch. Carbohydrates are broken down into individual glucose, fructose or galactose units. Glucose is your body's favorite form of energy.

  • If you don't get enough carbohydrates, your body can make glucose from protein or fat and if you get too many carbohydrates, your body is very good at storing them as fat.
  • A quick definition of healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs:
    • Healthy carbs are digested slowly, helping you feel full longer and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable. Healthy carbs (sometimes known as good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
    • Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and energy. Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber and nutrients. Therefore, you should avoid: Refined grains such as breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals that are not whole grain.

 

Here are some guidelines for including starch in your healthy eating:

  • Choose healthy carbohydrates and fiber sources, especially whole grains, for long lasting energy. Whole grains are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, which help to protect against coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes.
  • Experiment with different whole grains to find your favorites, such as whole wheat, brown rice, millet, quinoa, and barley.
    • Make sure you're really getting whole grains. Be aware that the words stone-ground, multi-grain, 100% wheat, or bran, don't necessarily mean that a product is whole grain. Look for the new Whole Grain Stamp. If there is no stamp look for the words "whole grain" or "100% whole wheat," and check the ingredients.
  • Try mixing grains as a first step to switching to whole grains. If whole grains, like brown rice and whole wheat pasta, don't sound good at first, start by mixing what you normally use with the whole grains. You can gradually increase the whole grain to 100%.
  • Avoid foods high in simple sugars and foods with added sugars.
    • Avoid simple sugars: Refined grains such as breads, pastas, and breakfast cereals that are not whole grain.
    • Avoid added sugars: check the ingredients of foods you eat, if things like corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, honey, or maple syrup, are listed in the first few ingredients, then the food does have added sugars and you might look for an alternative with less sugar.

 

Vegetables

Vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet. They are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Vegetables should be part of every meal and your first choice for a snack-aim for a minimum of five portions each day. The antioxidants and other nutrients in vegetables help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases.

  • The brighter, deeper colored vegetables contain higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and different colors provide different benefits.

 

Here are some guidelines for including vegetables in your healthy eating:

  • Add greens: Greens are packed with calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamins A, C, E and K, and they help strengthen the blood and respiratory systems. Be adventurous with your greens and branch out beyond bright and dark green lettuce-kale, mustard greens, broccoli, Chinese cabbage are just a few of the options.
  • Add sweet vegetables: Naturally sweet vegetables add healthy sweetness to your meals and reduce your cravings for other sweets. Some examples of sweet vegetables are corn, carrots, beets, sweet potatoes or yams, winter squash, and onions.
  • Don't forget to shop fresh and local whenever possible. The local farmer's market, fruit stand or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group are great ways to get access to fresh, local produce.
  • Avoid fried veggies and those with dressings or sauces, which adds too much unhealthy fat and calories.

 

Fruits

Fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet. They are low in calories and nutrient dense, which means they are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fruits (or vegetables) should be your first choice for a snack. The antioxidants and other nutrients in fruits help protect against certain types of cancer and other diseases.

  • Fruit provides fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. Berries are cancer fighting, apples provide fiber, oranges and mangos offer vitamin C, and so on.
  • Eat a wide variety of fruit in a rainbow of colors every day, the brighter the better. The brighter, deeper colored fruits contain higher concentrations of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and different colors provide different benefits.

 

Here are some guidelines for including fruits in your healthy eating:

  • Don't forget to shop fresh and local whenever possible. The local farmer's market, fruit stand or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group are great ways to get access to fresh, local produce. To find local growers, farmer's markets, and CSAs in your area, visit Local Harvest.
  • Avoid fruit juices, which can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar per cup, avoid or dilute with water.
  • Avoid canned fruit, which is often in sugary syrup, and dried fruit, which can be an excellent source of fiber but are also high in calories.

 

Dairy

Milk and milk products contribute many nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D (for products fortified with vitamin D), and potassium, to the diet. Moderate evidence shows that intake of milk and milk products is linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents. Moderate evidence also indicates that intake of milk and a milk product is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and with lower blood pressure in adults.

 

Here are some guidelines for including dairy in your healthy eating:

  • Almost half of the milk and milk product intake in the United States comes from cheese, little of which is consumed in a lower-fat form. Fulfilling your dairy group intake with fat-free (fluid) milk, low-fat (fluid) milk or yogurt rather than cheese can increase intake of potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin D and decrease intake of sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fatty acids.
  • Choosing fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products provides the same nutrients with less solid fat and thus fewer calories than full fat milk.
  • It is especially important to establish the habit of drinking milk in young children because those who consume milk at an early age are more likely to do so as adults.
  • For individuals who are lactose-intolerant, low-lactose and lactose-free milk products are available.
  • For those who do not consume milk or milk products it is important to consume other foods that provide the range of nutrients generally obtained from the milk group, including protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin A.
  • Soy beverages fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D are considered part of the milk and milk products group because they are similar to milk both nutritionally and in their use in meals.

 

Fats & Oils

Fats supply calories and essential fatty acids, and help in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Fats & Oils are not really a food group, but are included because they make up a substantial portion of your daily caloric intake and they contribute essential fatty acids and vitamin E to the diet. Good sources of healthy fat are needed to nourish your brain, heart and cells, as well as your hair, skin, and nails.  Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are particularly important and can reduce cardiovascular disease and improve your mood.

  • "Healthy fats" - Oils:
    • Fats with a high percentage of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are usually liquid at room temperature and are referred to as "oils".
    • Monounsaturated fats, from plant oils like canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil, as well as avocados, nuts (like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans) and seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame).
    • Polyunsaturated fats, including Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, found in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and some cold-water fish oil supplements. Other sources of polyunsaturated fats are unheated sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils, and walnuts.
  • "Unhealthy fats" - Solid Fats:
    • Fats with a high percentage of saturated or trans fatty acids are solid at room temperature and are referred to as "solid fats".
    • Saturated fats, found primarily in animal sources including red meat and whole milk dairy products. The body uses some saturated fatty acids for physiological and structural functions, but it makes more than enough to meet those needs so there is no dietary requirement for them.
    • Trans fats, found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fatty acids are found naturally in some foods and are formed during food processing; they are not essential in the diet.
    • Coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil are high in saturated fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fatty acids. For nutritional purposes, they should be considered solid fats.

 

Healthy Eating Suggestions

  • Choose the most nutritionally rich foods you can from each food group each day-those packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients but lower in calories. Pick foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products more often.
  • Because oils are a concentrated source of calories, you should replace solid fats with oils, rather than add oil to the diet, and should use oils in small amounts. For example, use soft margarine instead of stick margarine, replace some meats and poultry with seafood or unsalted nuts, and use vegetable oils instead of solid fats, such as butter, in cooking.
  • Americans should keep their intake of trans fatty acids as low as possible, particularly hydrogenation foods. Hydrogenation is used by food manufacturers to make products containing unsaturated fatty acids solid at room temperature (i.e., more saturated) and therefore more resistant to becoming spoiled or rancid.
  • Consuming fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products and lean meats and poultry will reduce the intake of natural trans fatty acids.
  • Reduce the use of solid fats in your diet, including: butter, beef fat (tallow, suet), chicken fat, pork fat (lard), stick margarine, and shortening.