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  • Julie C.H. Brake, MS, RDN, LD

Nutrition 101: The Food Groups

Can you name the six food groups? Do you have memories of learning the Food Guide Pyramid or the MyPlate in school? Why are food groups important? Aiming for timeless nutrition information, this blog post will answer these questions and more.

The six food groups are: grains, vegetables, fruits, protein, dairy, and fats. These food groups have been researched throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st century, and each group has been found to contribute vital nutrients to the human body. A quick check on valid nutrition advice is to see if avoiding any whole food group is recommended. If so, run don't walk away.

The research behind balanced nutrition using the food groups is what has supported the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in its nutrition education tools. The original Food Guide Pyramid published in 1992 looked like this:

Notice that the fats group is called the "Fats, Oils, & Sweets" group. This is not an accurate label, nor is the advice to use sparingly. Other issues with this educational tool included the misunderstanding that what is at the top is most important. When using this in the schools, the pyramid needed a lot of explanation and still was confusing to many students.

So the USDA updated the pyramid to the MyPyramid in 2005. It looked like this:

This graphic was a little easier to understand, showing each food group as a wedge of different size but all of equal importance. The yellow triangle is not labeled on the front picture, but it is listed in the description as "Fats & Oils," a better label and showing that fats are an essential part of nutritional intake. The man on the stairs was added to show that physical activity & nutrition work together for health.

In 2011, the USDA changed the MyPyramid into the MyPlate. This is the current graphic tool used for nutrition education in public schools and community health settings. It looks like this:

The intention was to help people understand how to make a meal with the food groups. However, the graphic leaves out fats entirely (assuming they will just be added to foods) and conveys the idea that every food group should be consumed every meal. It also does not help the general public understand how to incorporate mixed foods like tacos and lasagna (which are very important!). As a Registered Dietitian, these are just a few of the issues I have with the MyPlate education tool. It also doesn't help with snacks and requires just as much discussion and explanation (if not more) as the original Food Guide Pyramid. So as the cover image for this blog post shows, this entry could have been entitled "Why the MyPlate Doesn't Help." Yet, there is more to discuss, so we will move on.

Regardless of the education tools or graphics, the idea remains consistent that we need foods from the food groups. We all need foods from each food group every day. Are there days when we don't get one food group or another? Yes. Are there days when we eat more or less than what we need? Yes. That is part of normal eating. When we offer ourselves (and our children if we have them) a variety of foods and eat by our body's cues, we will meet our nutrition needs. A big concern that interferes with getting foods from food groups is food allergies. This is a medical limitation which requires attention and professional support. Even so, people with food allergies can get the nutrition they need by using allergy-friendly substitutes.

Over and over again, the food groups keep coming back as the main guide for adequate and balanced nutrition. If you need help finding foods in the food groups that will meet your needs, or if you feel like you would like more personalized nutrition advice, consult with a Registered Dietitian. If you don't know how to find one near you, please contact Positive Nutrition. We would be glad to help!

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