Skip to main content
Healthy Eating

Know Your Food Groups

Knowing the food groups can help you get the nutritious foods you need.

Grains

Any food made from wheat, rye, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain is a grain product. In addition to bread and pasta, there are cereal, rice, grits, tortillas, even popcorn. Many people find it easy to eat more grains than needed.

Look for grain choices that are low in saturated and trans fat and low in added sugar when possible. But be careful—low-fat baked goods can be high in added sugar.

Try to choose grain products made from whole grains. Make sure the first food on the ingredients list contains the word "whole," such as whole wheat, whole oats, or whole grain. Other whole grains include popcorn, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, bulgur, and quinoa. Whole grains can help you add fiber to your diet. For more on fiber, see Important Nutrients to Know.

Grain Options

These are one ounce or an ounce-equivalent grain examples.

  • Slice of bread
    Slice of bread
  • Small (2-1/2-inch) muffin
    Small (2-1/2-inch) muffin
  • Cup flaked cereal
    Cup flaked cereal
  • Half cup cooked rice, pasta, or cooked cereal
    Half cup cooked rice, pasta, or cooked cereal
  • Three cups popcorn
    Three cups popcorn
  • 6-inch corn or flour tortilla
    6-inch corn or flour tortilla

Vegetables

Sometimes, vegetables get a bum rap. That’s a shame because delicious vegetables come in a wide variety of colors and flavors. Dark green vegetables include broccoli, collard greens, spinach, and kale. Some red and orange vegetables are acorn squash, carrots, pumpkin, tomato, and sweet potato. Starchy vegetables are foods like corn, green peas, and white potatoes. Other vegetables include eggplant, beets, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celery, artichokes, and onions. Beans and peas (not green peas) include black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lima beans, soybeans, and tofu. These can also be counted in the protein foods group.

One-half cup of vegetables equals:

  • Cup of uncooked leafy vegetables
    Cup of uncooked leafy vegetables
  • Six baby carrots or one medium carrot
    Six baby carrots or one medium carrot
  • Half a large baked sweet potato
    Half a large baked sweet potato
  • Five broccoli florets
    Five broccoli florets
  • Half of a large (3 x 4-inch) red pepper
    Half of a large (3 x 4-inch) red pepper
  • Half cup cooked green beans
    Half cup cooked green beans

Fruits

Like most Americans, older people generally do not eat enough fruit. Yet, there are so many choices—citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits; different kinds of berries; fruits that grow on trees such as apricots, cherries, peaches, and mangoes; and others like figs, raisins, and pineapples.

Try some fruits that you haven’t eaten before. Fruits with skins like apples and pears provide extra fiber that promotes regularity.

One half cup of fruit equals:

  • Small piece of fruit such as a 2-inch peach
    Small piece of fruit such as a 2-inch peach
  • Quarter cup dried fruit
    Quarter cup dried fruit
  • One-eighth of a medium cantaloupe
    One-eighth of a medium cantaloupe
  • Four ounces of 100% fruit juice
    Four ounces of 100% fruit juice
  • Half a medium grapefruit
    Half a medium grapefruit
  • Sixteen grapes
    Sixteen grapes

Protein

It can be a surprise to find out how often you eat more than the suggested amount of protein. But, simply cutting back on other food groups to keep your calories in line won’t solve the problem because you’ll be missing out on the nutrients those food groups give you. In addition to watching how much food with protein you eat, try to choose lean or low-fat foods. Higher-fat choices count as added fats and oils. Try to eat seafood instead of meat at least twice a week to balance your proteins. Small fish, like sardines or trout, or farm-raised fish (check the label) contain less mercury than large fish, like tuna. Mercury can be harmful.

One ounce serving equals:

  • 12 almonds or 7 walnut halves
    12 almonds or 7 walnut halves
  • Tablespoon peanut butter
    Tablespoon peanut butter
  • Half cup lentil or bean soup
    Half cup lentil or bean soup
  • Quarter cup tofu
    Quarter cup tofu
  • One Egg
    One Egg
  • Two tablespoons hummus
    Two tablespoons hummus

Dairy

Most adults do not get enough dairy products. For your heart health, always try to pick from the many low-fat or fat-free choices in the dairy products food group. Choosing fat-free or low-fat milk and yogurt, rather than cheese, gives you important vitamins and minerals and less sodium and fat.

One cup of milk is the same as:

  • Cup or 8 ounces yogurt
    Cup or 8 ounces yogurt
  • 1-1/2 ounces hard cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, or Parmesan
    1-1/2 ounces hard cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, or Parmesan
  • Third cup shredded cheese
    Third cup shredded cheese
  • Cup calcium-fortified soy beverage
    Cup calcium-fortified soy beverage
  • Two cups cottage cheese
    Two cups cottage cheese
  • Cup pudding made with milk
    Cup pudding made with milk

Oils

Oils are high in calories, but they are also an important source of nutrients like vitamin E. If possible, use oils instead of solid fats, like butter, when cooking. Measuring your daily oils can be tricky—knowing what you add while cooking or baking is one thing. But, oil is naturally part of some foods.

How much oil is in:

  • Half a medium avocado has three teaspoons of oil
    Half a medium avocado has three teaspoons of oil
  • Four large ripe olives have half teaspoon of oil
    Four large ripe olives have half teaspoon of oil
  • Tablespoon of peanut butter has two teaspoons of oil
    Tablespoon of peanut butter has two teaspoons of oil

Solid Fats and Added Sugars

For most people, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Patterns allow extra calories every day for solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) in the processed foods they eat.

Choosing foods that are low in fat and without added sugar whenever possible might just leave you with some extra calories left over each day. These extra calories can be used as you like. Some mornings you could have a glazed donut—but don’t forget to count it as a grain and don’t go over your suggested limits for SoFAS.

Added Sugars

With both the USDA Food Patterns and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Eating Plan, added sugars mean more calories without more nutrients. For some people, added sugars can lead to higher levels of fats in the blood, raising their risk of heart disease.

Read the ingredients label to see if the processed foods you are eating have added sugar. In addition to other updates, food labels will now include “Added Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label to inform consumers of their sugar intake. Look for these key words on the label:

Added Sugars: Words to Know
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Maple syrup

Read about this topic in Spanish. Lea sobre este tema en español.

For More Information on Healthy Eating

USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
1-703-305-7600
www.cnpp.usda.gov

USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center   
National Agricultural Library
1-301-504-5414
fnic@ars.usda.gov
www.nal.usda.gov/fnic

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
1-800-860-8747 (toll-free)
1-866-569-1162 (TTY/toll-free)
healthinfo@niddk.nih.gov
www.niddk.nih.gov

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
1-301-592-8573
nhlbiinfo@nhlbi.nih.gov
www.nhlbi.nih.gov