What are the Basic Food Groups?

B. Miller

The basic food groups vary depending on the dietary guidelines with which they are being associated. The government, for example, makes different food group categories for certain meal plans designed to prevent heart disease or high blood pressure. In a general sense, however, the basic food groups can generally be broken down into five or six categories; this includes grain, meat and fish, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and sometimes an additional category made up of oils, fats and sugars, and "discretionary calories."

Dairy products and eggs.
Dairy products and eggs.

The purpose of the basic food groups, and the often referenced Food Pyramid provided by the USDA, is to give people an idea, at a glance, of how much of each type of food they should be consuming each day for optimum health. The basic food groups are then broken down into serving sizes for the items in each group, so a certain number of servings is generally recommended per day.

A selection of fresh vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and others.
A selection of fresh vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, and others.

The largest of the basic food groups typically include the grains, vegetables, and fruit groups. This means that one should aim to eat most foods throughout the day from those three food groups. Whole grains are recommended, because these contain fiber; white bread, for example, is not a good choice because it contains white processed flour that the body converts to sugar and fat. A variety of fruits and vegetables is the best choice; experts often recommend eating vegetables in as many different colors as possible.

Grains are part of the largest basic food group.
Grains are part of the largest basic food group.

The protein groups, which are sometimes broken down into meat and fish, or meat and beans, as well as the dairy group, make up the rest of the daily food groups. It is recommended that one eat less from these three groups than the ones mentioned above. Leaner proteins and meats, such as chicken and fish, are recommended more than beef. Products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt make up the dairy group.

Junk food is usually high in fat and sugar.
Junk food is usually high in fat and sugar.

While not usually considered one of the food groups, the category of foods made up of "junk" food is often mentioned as well. These foods should be eaten in moderation or not at all, and are generally high in certain oils as well as fat and sugar. This group may also be referred to as discretionary calories. The rules of the basic food groups do not need to be strictly followed in order to be healthy, and those with specific health problems may require certain variations, but they do provide helpful general guidelines as to a healthy diet and eating plan.

People should try to eat five servings of different colored fruit and vegetables each day.
People should try to eat five servings of different colored fruit and vegetables each day.

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Discussion Comments


@jonrss - While many people have lost weight by following a low carb diet, there are health risks involved and the weight loss is often only temporary. By eliminating carbs from your diet you can help you body to shed weight quickly, but in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle for your entire life carbs have to be a feature of your diet.

Instead of looking for a quick and easy way to loose weight, why not try to cultivate healthy eating habits that will keep you fit until the day you die. Eat whole grains, avoid processed foods, choose vegetables over meats, practice portion control and try to eat the greatest variety of foods that you can. Follow these simple tips and you will never have to worry about losing weight.


According to this article, grains and carbohydrates are meant to be the basis of our diet. I am about to start a diet that encourages us to eat as much low carb food as possible. How can this be the case? Is it good or bad to eat carbs?


I kind of like the idea of having a dedicated food group for junk food. Somehow making this an accepted and acknowledged part of the average daily diet seems like it might help people to cut back on their intake.

I think about it like this. If you just treat junk food like an indulgence that is always bad and can never be a feature of your diet, you are likely to loose track of how much you are eating or ignore the scale of the problem. But if you allow that all people will eat at least a little junk food and create guidelines for what is really unhealthy and what is occasionally acceptable, people will learn to regulate their eating and remove the shame from their mistakes. In a roundabout way, it might lead to healthier eaters.


@ZsaZsa56 - I agree that the food pyramid has problems but I think it is still worthwhile. To a large extent, the problems with the food pyramid are juts a consequence of trying to find a simple way to state and complicated thing.

The details of a healthy diet are vast and varying depending on the person. The goal of the food pyramid is to present the most basic and universal information in a visual form that is easily digested (pun intended). There is really not they space or the means to have a lot of nuanced information. It kind of has to be inadequate by necessity.


The food pyramid is both a useful and a manipulative tool. While it is important for people to think about eating a diverse and balanced diet, the food groups should do a better job of pointing out what is good and what is bad.

For instance, the food group meats and proteins correctly identifies animal proteins as a potentially healthy part of your diet. But they don't also point out that beef is especially high in fat and that there are significant health risks involved with eating lots of meat. They also don't make good distinctions between good carbohydrates and carbohydrates that come from processed foods like cookies or cereal. I think that the structure of the food pyramid has inadvertently lead to a lot of unhealthy eating.

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