Meet Each Food Group...

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cartoon broccoli
The 6 food groups

Grain | Fruit | Vegetable | Dairy | Protein | Fat

Here's the lowdown on each group and basic nutrition tips to keep in mind:

Grain Group

The grains you are probably familiar with include wheat, oats, barley, rye, corn and rice. Anything made from these grains is also part of this food group. For example, whole wheat bread, corn tortillas, and brown rice pasta.

You've likely heard it's important to eat "whole grains." Well, when's the last time you ate wheat berries? Probably never heard of them, right? A wheat berry is the whole wheat grain.

However, most of us eat the byproducts of the wheat berry: wheat bread, wheat pasta, wheat crackers, etc., and think we are eating whole grain products. It's not necessarily true!

There is a difference between whole wheat bread and wheat bread!

A word about bread, crackers, pasta, etc:

Unless the word "whole" is listed before the word "wheat" on a label, you are not eating a whole wheat (whole grain) product.

So be sure to read labels when you grocery shop.

"Multigrain bread" throws most people for a loop. It sounds so nutritious!

Most people think multigrain bread is a whole grain product...but it often isn't. "Multigrain" simply means the bread is made from multiple grains....wheat, oats, and rye for example.

You still need to read the food label and look at the ingredient list to look for the word "whole" listed before each grain.

And when you eat out, your sandwich bread (and the bread in the breadbasket) is unfortunately usually plain unwhole wheat bread.

Good choices from the grain food group:

  • wheat berries
  • whole wheat bread
  • brown rice
  • oatmeal
  • whole hulled barley or barley flakes (not pearled barley)

Does every choice from this food group have to be whole, you must be thinking? Can you ever eat those yummy sourdough rolls from the bread basket?

Yes you can! Just make sure that at least half of the grain group products you eat in a day are whole.

Selection Tips:

  • Select bread and cereal products with at least 2-4 gram fiber per serving.
  • Choose grain products without hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

Fruit Group and Vegetable Group

Although the fruit and vegetable food groups are categorized separately, I'll talk about them together here because the guidelines for choosing them are the same.

A very important word here: color.

OK, one more important word...variety.

You may have heard the basic nutrition principle that fruits and veggies provide you protective antioxidants that are important to good health.

Well, the antioxidants are the components that give the fruit and vegetable food groups their pretty colors. The richer the color, the more antioxidants.

In other words, a bright red tomato has more nutrition than an anemic looking one. Also, a blue blueberry has different antioxidants than a red strawberry.

So vary the rich-colored fruits and veggies you eat. In fact, think about eating a rainbow every day (or at least every week):

strawberries, raspberries, cherries, watermelon, pink grapefruit, tomatoes, red bell peppers

oranges, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupe, peaches, carrots, sweet potato, orange bell peppers

bananas, yellow bell peppers, corn

broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, mustard greens, kiwi, honeydew melon

blueberries, blackberries, grapes, eggplant

Note: It's true that fruits have more calories than vegetables. However, I've yet to meet the person who is overweight or unhealthy because they are eating too much fruit. That big bad banana really isn't "bad for you."

Note: If eating vegetables is hard for you, getting a juicer may be a good way to start. Yes, juicing fruits or vegetables provides more calories than eating them straight, but fruits and vegetables in juice form are better than no fruits and vegetables at all!

Selection Tips:

  • Choose fresh vegetables and fruits in season whenever possible.
  • Wash all produce well (including pre-packaged) before eating, and consider a produce wash product.
  • Raw or lightly steamed vegetables have higher nutrient content.
  • Consider prepping vegetables (wash, rinse, cut) in bulk for snacking availability or later use.
  • Choose from fresh, frozen, dried, or unsweetened canned fruits or juice.
  • Choose organic vegetables and fruits whenever possible. Get a free downloadable wallet card that lists produce most likely to have high pesticide residues.

"The Dirty Dozen" list of 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to have high pesticide residue includes:

  • apples
  • bell peppers
  • celery
  • cherries
  • grapes (imported)
  • lettuce
  • nectarines
  • peaches
  • pears
  • potatoes
  • spinach
  • strawberries

Dairy Food Group

This food group contains milk, yogurt and cheese.

Scientific opinions vary as to whether dairy products are a necessary component of the diet. However, there is no debate as to the fact that calcium (found in dairy products) is necessary.

If you opt to shun dairy products, please be sure to choose alternative sources of calcium such as collards, kale, broccoli, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy or Chinese cabbage (from the vegetable food group)...

...or canned salmon and sardines with their soft bones, calcium fortified soymilk, almonds, Brazil nuts, and dried beans.

If you choose to include the dairy food group in your diet, opt for lowfat or fat free varieties. I personally recommend organic dairy products, especially in varieties containing fat, because hormones and antibiotics are stored in the fat.

Selection Tips:

  • Choose organic whenever possible.
  • Read labels on all products, as nutritional content varies among brands.
  • Select yogurt with live cultures and no artificial sweeteners.
  • Choose calcium-fortified dairy alternatives.

Protein Food Group (a.k.a. Meat and Beans Group)

I like to differentiate between animal sources of protein and plant sources of protein.

Animal sources:
poultry, fish, meat and eggs (no, eggs aren't classified as dairy)

Plant sources:
beans, nuts and nut butters, and vegetarian alternatives such as tofu, tempeh, and seitan

The protein group is the food group with the widest range of calorie density.

Many of my clients who come to me for weight loss find themselves snacking on nuts or nut butter (peanut butter) for the protein without realizing it takes 200 calories to get the same amount of protein that 1 oz. of turkey could provide for 40 calories! (See why calories matter).

That's because nuts contain a lot of fat in addition to the protein.

Selection Tips:

  • Choose plant sources of protein frequently.
  • Remove visible fat and skin from poultry and visible fat from meat.
  • Choose hormone and antibiotic free, grass-fed meat and poultry when possible.
  • Bake, broil, or grill.
  • Use this visual cue to gauge portions of meat, poultry and fish: 3 ounces is about the size of a deck of playing cards.
  • Choose "safe" fish (not over-fished, nor contaminated with pollutants or heavy metals. Download a safe seafood pocket guide.)
  • To reduce potential exposure to toxins, minimize intake of large-bodied fish species (swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish) and remove skin before cooking.

Fat Food Group

As with the protein food group, I like to differentiate between animal sources and plant sources within the fat group. Know your fats!

Plant sources:
nuts, avocados, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil or other healthy oils such as extra virgin olive oil, organic canola oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil

Animal sources:
butter, cream, cream cheese, sour cream (even though these are dairy products, they're part of the fat group!)

Selection Tips:

  • Choose plant fats more often than animal fats.
  • Choose nuts and seeds that are unsalted or only lightly salted.
  • Eat raw or dry roasted nuts. Avoid oil roasted.
  • Choose organic cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils whenever possible.
  • Purchase oils in small containers and keep refrigerated.
  • Use low temperatures if you cook with oil.
  • Do not heat flaxseed oil.
  • Avoid any product made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

I hope you enjoyed your basic nutrition lesson on the food groups. Now...

...on to recess!

More food group information on my Basic Nutrition page.

The Healthy Eating section.

Your Personal Nutrition Guide home.