We all probably have a food that we eat so often that we consider it our own personal food group. (Hello, avocado group!)
And with nutrition guidelines ever shifting and evolving, it’s easy to get confused about the basics. Even the iconic food pyramid is gone, replaced by MyPlate — a balanced plate to illustrate the food groups.
But what are the basic food groups? (And how many are there these days? Four? Five? Six?)
We’ll share the basics about each of the (spoiler alert!) five food groups, along with info on serving sizes, and how the recommendations might align with your own nutrition plan.
The Five Basic Food Groups
The five basic food groups are:
These food groups are determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has selected recommended daily portions to help give you a healthy balance of the macronutrients carbs, protein, and fat, as well as all the micronutrients you need.
So how many servings do you need to eat from each food group each day? It depends. Exactly how much you need, along with your daily calorie range, will vary based on your activity level, age, and gender.
MyPlate has a Checklist Calculator that will help you determine your specific needs. The general rule is to try to eat a wide selection within each food group to get a variety of nutrients, and the MyPlate website offers more specific info for each “food plan,” or calorie level.
With the newer MyPlate recommendations, half your plate should be fruits and vegetables. The other half is protein and grains, with dairy on the side. As you’d expect, fats, oils, and sugars are to be used sparingly.
Note: These USDA recommendations may differ from other nutrition plans. That’s because the USDA guidelines are not intended to help you lose weight or build strength; the guidelines are meant to help individuals maintain overall health.
What Counts as a Serving of Vegetables?
All vegetables — fresh, frozen, dried, canned, and juiced — are considered part of the vegetable food group. There are five subgroups within the vegetable food group:
- dark green veggies (like broccoli, spinach, kale, and other dark leafy greens)
- red and orange veggies (winter squash, carrots, orange and red bell peppers, etc.)
- beans and peas (such as black, garbanzo, kidney, pinto, or soy beans, or black-eyed peas or split peas)
- starchy vegetables (including potatoes, corn, and green peas)
- other vegetables (such as cucumbers, cabbage, cauliflower, and mushrooms)
The USDA recommends certain amounts from each subgroup over the course of the week, which, like all the guidelines, varies based on your age, sex, and activity level. You don’t need to sweat it — just make sure you’re “eating the rainbow.”
Vegetable servings are measured in cups, and the general rule is that a serving is one cup of raw or cooked vegetables or two cups raw leafy greens. Here’s what the USDA considers to be one portion of some common vegetables:
- Broccoli: 3 spears, about 5 inches long
- Carrots: 2 medium
- Celery: 2 stalks
- Green peppers: 1 large
- Leafy greens: 2 cups raw or 1 cup cooked
How Much Is a Serving of Fruit?
Per the USDA, any type of fruit is considered part of the fruit group — fresh, dried, juiced, frozen, canned, or pureed. (When you enjoy fruit any way other than fresh, try to limit or avoid added sugars. Should You Avoid Fruit Because of Its Sugar Content?)
The rule of thumb is that a USDA serving equals 1 cup of fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, or ½ cup of dried fruit. So if servings are listed as cups, how does a banana or a grapefruit equate to a cup portion? Here are portions of common fruits:
- Apple: ½ large, or 1 small
- Banana: 1 large
- Grapes: 32
- Grapefruit: 1 medium
- Oranges: 1 large
- Peach: 1 large
- Pear: 1 medium
- Strawberries: 8 large
What are Protein Foods?
The protein group is one of the more diverse food groups, and the USDA recommends eating a variety of foods from this group each week. The protein food group contains animal-based proteins (meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs) and plant-based proteins (beans, nuts, legumes, and seeds, etc.). You’ll note that beans and legumes are also considered vegetables!
The USDA measures protein in ounce equivalents. Aside from meat, determining the ounce equivalents of your protein sources may not be the easiest to translate. Here are the ounce equivalent servings of some common protein foods:
- Meat, poultry, and fish: 1 ounce
- Egg: 1 whole
- Nuts: 24 pistachios, 12 almonds, or 1 tablespoon of nut butter
- Beans: ¼ cup, cooked
All About the Grains Group
In the old food pyramid, grains were at the base, but their footprint on the plate has shrunk. Grains are considered “any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal.”
Bread, pasta, rice, and oatmeal are all types of grains, and, like vegetables, the grain group is broken down into subgroups. In this case, it’s just two: whole grains and refined grains. The USDA recommends that at least half of your grains be whole grains.
As with protein, the USDA uses ounce equivalents for grains. Here’s a breakdown of one-ounce equivalents of some typical grains:
- Oatmeal: ½ cup, cooked
- Bread: 1 slice
- Pasta: ½ cup, cooked
- Bagel: 1 mini
- English muffin: ½ muffin
- Tortillas: 1 small
What’s in the Dairy Food Group?
That brings us to the dairy group, the only group that’s technically not on the plate. This group is fairly small but contains a variety of foods. All fluid milk and foods made from dairy that have a similar calcium content – yogurt, cheese, etc.— are considered dairy, per the USDA.
Calcium-fortified soy milk also falls under the dairy category; however, foods made from dairy that are void of calcium are not considered dairy foods. (That means butter, cream cheese, and cream count as fats — not dairy.)
Here are some examples of dairy foods and their cup portion equivalents:
- Milk: 1 cup
- Yogurt: 8 fluid ounces
- Cheese (hard): 1½ ounces
- Soy milk: 1 cup
What If I Don’t Eat Dairy?
Milk is definitely part of the dairy group, but if you don’t eat dairy, there are plenty of other foods that are considered to be part of that group. It could also be called the “calcium group.”
According to the USDA, if you don’t consume milk, these are acceptable choices to get calcium into your daily diet:
- Calcium-fortified juices, cereals, breads, non-dairy milks, such as almond, cashew, or rice
- Canned fish with bones, like sardines and salmon
- Soybeans, tempeh, soy yogurt, and tofu made with calcium sulfate
- Leafy greens like collards, turnip greens, kale, and bok choy (though the amount of calcium that can be absorbed from these foods varies)
What You Should Know Before Eliminating Food Groups
Going gluten-free? Meatless? Off the dairy? Whether you follow a certain way of eating for your health or another reason, there are things to know before removing food groups from your diet, such as dairy or grains that contain gluten.
It’s important to be aware of what nutrients you may be cutting out of your diet and find ways to replace those foods. Depending on how restrictive your diet is, you may want to work with a registered dietitian to help you fill any nutrient gaps.
The amount you should eat each day will vary based on whether you’re a man or woman (and based on your age and activity level). To ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, choose a variety of foods from each group — and that’s possible even if you need to adjust your diet to support your health or for another reason.