What Are the Basic Five Food Groups?
Pop quiz: Can you name the five food groups? Nutrition guidelines regularly shift and evolve, so it’s easy to get confused about the basics. Even the iconic food pyramid is gone, replaced by MyPlate’s balanced plate to illustrate the five food groups.
The five food groups are vegetables, fruit, protein, grains, and dairy.
In this article, we’ll share the basics about each of those food groups, along with info on serving sizes, and how the recommendations might align with your own nutrition plan.
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, vitamins, and minerals you need.
The 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 to help individuals maintain overall health.
All vegetables — fresh, frozen, dried, canned, and juiced — are part of the vegetable food group.
The vegetable food group has five subgroups:
- 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.”
What Counts as a Serving of Vegetables?
Measure vegetable servings 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 how the USDA measures 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
Per the USDA, any type of fruit belongs in 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?)
How Much Is a Serving of Fruit?
The rule of thumb is that a USDA serving equals 1 cup of fruit or 100% fruit juice, or ½ cup of dried fruit. So, 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
3. 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 also count as vegetables!
What Counts as a Serving of Protein?
The USDA measures protein in ounce equivalents. Determining the ounce equivalents of meat is simple; other protein sources are more complicated. (Ask the Expert: How Much Protein Do You Need?)
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
In the old food pyramid, grains were at the base, but their footprint on the plate has shrunk. Grains are “any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal.”
Bread, pasta, rice, and oatmeal are all types of grains.
The grains group has two subgroups: whole grains and refined grains. The USDA recommends that at least half of your grains be whole grains.
What Counts as a Serving of 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
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.— count as dairy, per the USDA.
Calcium-fortified soy milk also falls under the dairy category; however, foods made from dairy but void of calcium are not “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, the group includes plenty of other foods. It could also be called the “calcium group.”
If you don’t consume milk, the USDA says you can get calcium into your daily diet with:
- 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 absorbable calcium in these foods varies and may not provide you with as much calcium as the other options listed)
How Many Servings Do You Need?
How many servings do you need to eat from each of the five food groups each day? It depends. Exactly how much you need, along with your daily calorie range, will vary based on your activity level, age, and sex.
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.
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
- Fill the other half with protein and grains, with dairy on the side.
- As you’d expect, you should use fats, oils, and sugars sparingly.
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 know which nutrients you may eliminate from 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.
According to the USDA, 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.