Nutrition - The food guide pyramid

Nutrition The Food Guide Pyramid 2716
Photo by: Olga Lyubkin

Adolescents need a practical guide to help them make food choices to meet their nutritional needs. During the twentieth century and especially in recent years, several food guides have been developed by a number of government agencies. Currently, the Food Guide Pyramid is the most widely accepted food guide that incorporates the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Food Guide Pyramid was created to help Americans choose a healthful diet. The guide addresses two main dietary problems: diet excesses and diet deficiencies. Several of the major causes of death in the United States are linked to diets that contain too much fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. On the other hand, bodies need enough protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to grow and stay healthy. People who eat too many foods with a lot of calories but few or no nutrients, like soft drinks and candy, can develop nutrient deficiencies.

The food pyramid depicts six food categories and emphasizes that the American diet should include greater amounts of grain foods, fruits and vegetables, and lesser amounts of fats and sugars. Its shape is very important to its message, as it visually represents how much food people need from each of the six categories. Each group is equally important, but people need foods from the bottom in larger amounts than foods closer to the top of the pyramid. The food pyramid emphasizes the following key points:

  • Eat a variety of foods every day.
  • Choose foods with less fat and sugar.
  • Eat plenty of whole grain foods, fruits and vegetables (preferably raw).

While the food pyramid divides foods into six categories, there are five major food groups. The food category at the tip of the pyramid is not considered a major food group since these foods should be used sparingly for good health. The food pyramid reminds people to eat a variety of foods to get all of the nutrients they need as well as the right amount of food to maintain

The Food Guide Pyramid shows how many servings from each food group an individual should have each day. (Electronic Illustrators Group. Reproduced by permission of Gale Group.)
The Food Guide Pyramid shows how many servings from each food group an individual should have each day. (
Electronic Illustrators Group
. Reproduced by permission of
Gale Group

a healthy weight. The foods are grouped together according to the key nutrients they provide. Foods provide many more nutrients besides their key nutrients but by eating plenty of foods with key nutrients, people are more likely to get the correct balance of all nutrients.

The food pyramid also provides information on how much to eat from each group. It recommends a range of servings needed each day from each of the major food groups. The amount of calories and key nutrients people need determines how many servings they should have. A serving is a specific amount of food, which is different for each food category. The amount of calories or energy people need depends on how old they are, how active they are, and how much they weigh.

In general, boys need more energy than most girls and therefore more servings. This is due to the fact that boys have more muscle and bone growth during adolescence, which requires a higher consumption of protein, iron, calcium, and zinc. For girls, adolescence means a smaller increase in muscle mass and an increase in fatty tissue because the body is preparing for menstruation. This results in a lower need for girls than boys for certain nutrients. However, girls do need more iron and calcium because of the onset of menstruation.

As people age, they need fewer servings due to a decrease in activity level and other factors. To get all the nutrients and enough energy each day, almost everyone needs to eat at least the minimum number of servings for each group every day.

The Food Guide Pyramid

Bread, Cereals, Rice and Pasta Complex carbohydrates, fiber
Vegetables Vitamins A and C
Fruits Vitamins A and C
Milk and Milk Products Calcium
Meat and Meat Alternatives Protein and iron

Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta Group

A healthy diet begins with plenty of foods from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group (which will be referred to as the grain group since all are made from grains such as wheat, oats, corn, or rice). It is recommended that people eat between six and eleven servings per day from this group. As such, this group is at the bottom of the pyramid and forms the base, or foundation, of a healthy diet. People need more servings each day from this group than from any other. The grain group of foods provides the nutrients complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber), vitamins, and minerals to the body.

The choices people make from this group are significant because carbohydrates, especially those from whole grain sources, can play an important part in healthful eating. Complex carbohydrates are the starches that come mainly from plant foods such as wheat, oats, and rice. Fruits and vegetables also provide complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates provide your body with its preferred source of energy. There is a common misconception that the foods from this group are fattening. In fact, most grain group foods are low in fat and calories. Donuts, pastries, muffins and some crackers (butter or cheese flavored) can be quite high in fat and are the few exceptions. What can increase the amount of fat and calories is what people add to grain foods. For example, the butter or cream cheese people may use on a bagel can (depending on how much is used) nearly double the calories from this grain food.

Fiber is the tough or stringy part of plant foods like grains, fruits, and vegetables, therefore sometimes referred to as "roughage." People do not digest most dietary fiber, and so it gets pushed through the digestive tract helping the body rid of wastes. To get the fiber the body needs, the type of grain group foods people choose is very important. Grains high in fiber include whole wheat bread, brown rice, whole-wheat crackers, pasta, and whole grain cereals (like Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Shredded Wheat).

Vegetable Group and Fruit Group

It is recommended that everyone eat at least five servings per day from this category. Fruits and vegetables—especially raw (or uncooked) fruits and vegetables—help reduce the risk for heart disease and some cancers by providing important vitamins and minerals as well as a good source of fiber. Fruits and vegetables are also naturally low in fat and calories, help maintain a healthy weight, and decrease the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Two of the vitamins that are particularly important to health that fruits and vegetables provide are Vitamins A and C.


Typical grain foods include bread, cereal, popcorn, pretzels, flour tortillas, rice, noodles, and crackers. Each of the following counts as one serving from the grain group:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/2 hamburger or hot dog bun
  • 1 ounce cold cereal
  • 1/2 cup of pasta, rice or hot cereal
  • 3 to 4 saltine-type crackers

Vitamin A is important for: night vision, healthy skin, gums and teeth. Good sources of Vitamin A are: carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and nectarines. Vitamin C is important for healthy gums and teeth, healing cuts and scrapes, and strong bone development. Good sources of Vitamin C are: broccoli, tomatoes, green pepper, 100% orange juice, pineapple, and peaches.

Most Americans don't get enough servings of fruits and vegetables every day. The National Cancer Institute and Department of Health and Human Services has been promoting increased consumption of fruits and vegetables through a program called "5 A Day for Better Health." Research has suggested that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables may have lower risks for some cancers than people who eat less. The fiber, vitamins, and other components in fruits and vegetables may be responsible for this lower risk.

Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables every day is important since they all don't provide the same vitamins and minerals in the same amounts. Besides the vast number of different fruits and vegetables, fruit juice and vegetable juice are also considered servings from these groups. Many beverages on the market today call themselves juice but are mostly based on a sugar-sweetened liquid with only a small amount of fruit juice added. Consumers should be sure to look for the words "100% fruit or vegetable juice" on the label of juices to be sure that they contain all of the benefits of a fruit or vegetable serving.

Milk and Milk Products Group

It is recommended that two to three servings from this group be consumed per day.

The milk and milk products group includes milk, yogurt, and cheese. The key nutrient supplied by this group is the mineral calcium, but milk and milk products also provide protein, carbohydrates, and other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D is an important component in milk because a body needs vitamin D in order to properly absorb calcium. As a result, all milk sold in stores is fortified with Vitamin D.


Each of the following counts as a serving from the vegetable group:

  • 1/2 cup cooked or chopped raw vegetable
  • 1 cup lettuce or salad greens
  • 3/4 cup vegetable juice
  • 10 French fries

Each of the following counts as a serving from the fruit group:

  • 1 medium piece of fruit or melon wedge
  • 1/2 cup 100% fruit juice
  • 1/2 cup chopped, cooked or canned fruit

There are many choices when it comes to buying milk at the grocery store or even in the school cafeteria. There are four types of milk, which differ only in the amount of fat and calories they contain. All four types of milk provide the same amount of calcium and other nutrients. Water is not added to low fat or nonfat milk, although people tend to think this because the

Munching on an apple is a good way to help reach your daily fruit requirement. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Munching on an apple is a good way to help reach your daily fruit requirement. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

milk may seem "watery" if they are used to drinking milk with higher fat content (milk with higher fat content tends to be thicker or creamier than nonfat milk).


Each of the following counts as a serving from the milk and milk products group:

  • 1 cup milk or yogurt (preferably low-fat)
  • 1 cup frozen yogurt
  • 1-1/2 ounces of natural cheese (cheddar, Swiss)
  • 2 ounces of processed cheese


More than 80 percent of teenagers, particularly girls, do not get enough calcium. Calcium is very important for building strong bones, improving nerve impulses and blood clotting and muscle contractions. During the teen years, people need more calcium because they're growing taller and bone development shifts into high gear. Nearly half of all bone is formed during the teenage years. Calcium is deposited in bones when people eat food rich in calcium. Calcium is withdrawn from bones when people are not receiving enough calcium; similar to the way people do their banking, calcium is deposited and withdrawn from bones on a continual basis and it is perfectly normal to withdraw from time to time. Teens and others run into problems, though, when more calcium is continually withdrawn than is deposited, meaning that teens are not getting enough of this important nutrient. When teenagers do not meet the daily requirement for calcium, their bones may not reach their full potential. What results is bone that is less dense (like Swiss cheese) and less able to withstand the natural loss that comes with aging.

When bone loss is excessive, bones can become brittle and weak and are more likely to fracture or break. This condition is referred to as osteoporosis, or "porous bones." People are more likely to develop osteoporosis later in life if they do not reach their bone potential by getting enough calcium during the teen years. Nearly 25 million Americans have osteoporosis and four out of every five are women.

Most teenagers don't meet the requirement for calcium because of poor eating habits, meal skipping, and dieting. Two to three servings from the milk and dairy food groups each day are all that is needed to meet the daily requirement, although there is some debate over this; certain nutritionists believe that four servings of dairy a day may be more appropriate for teens. Milk drinking often declines during the teen years as soda and sweetened beverage intake goes up. Other foods in the food pyramid besides milk and dairy foods can also provide calcium, but milk is still the best source.

According to health experts, in order to get all of the nutrition milk has to offer without getting too much fat or calories, anyone above the age of two should be drinking low-fat milk. One cup of whole milk (4% fat) has the same amount of fat as three strips of bacon. Babies and children under two years of age need that extra fat in their diets for growth and development. Most adults, teens, and schoolage children should drink low fat or nonfat milk. Low-fat (1% fat) and nonfat milk (skim milk) are excellent sources of calcium without a lot of fat and calories.

The Food Guide Pyramid

Type of Milk Fat (per 1 cup) Calories (per 1 cup)
Whole milk (4%) 8 grams 150 calories
Reduced fat milk (2%) 5 grams 120 calories
Low-fat milk (1%) 2.5 grams 100 calories
Nonfat milk (skim) 0 80 calories

Experts recommend that if people find it difficult to adjust to drinking low-fat milk, they should try switching to reduced-fat milk (2%) first. Then, when they have adjusted to the change, they can make the healthy switch to low-fat or nonfat milk.

Meat and Meat Alternatives Group

The meat and meat alternatives group provides the key nutrients protein and iron. Protein is needed for maintaining muscles, and iron is needed for healthy blood. This is perhaps the most diverse food group of them all because it includes not only red meat, like steak or hamburger, but poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, and peanut butter as well. These foods are considered alternatives or substitutes for meat because they are all good sources of the key nutrients protein and iron. It is recommended that two to three servings from this group be consumed each day.

In general, most Americans get enough protein each day, and usually more than they need. The foods in this group are often thought of as being high in fat and cholesterol. Some choices in this group are much higher in fat than others and should be chosen less often. Highest fat choices include bologna, salami, hot dogs, regular ground beef, fried chicken, and sausage. Lean meat, chicken and turkey without the skin, fish, and beans are the best to choose most often because they are lower in fat.

Individuals who follow a vegetarian (meatless) diet must take care to incorporate protein into their diets. People choose to be vegetarian for a variety of reasons: religion, culture, or love of animals. Whatever the reason, foods such as nuts, eggs, seeds, beans, peanut butter, tofu or possibly fish would replace meat or poultry as protein sources in their diet. If it is planned carefully to make sure important nutrients are not lacking, a vegetarian diet can be a healthy and adequate diet.

Fats, Oils, and Sweets

The small tip of the Food Guide Pyramid shows fats, oils, and sweets and is not considered a major food group. These foods provide fat, sugar, and calories but few nutrients and should be enjoyed as occasional extras, not in place of foods in the major food groups. The foods found in this group include salad dressing, butter, margarine, soda, candy, chips, and sweet desserts. Although fat is an essential nutrient needed for good health, there is no recommended number of servings provided for this group. Eating foods from the major food groups should provide all of the fat people need. The foods in this category should be used sparingly.


Each of the following counts as a serving from the meat/protein group:

  • 3 ounces (about the size and thickness of a deck of cards) cooked meat or poultry or fish
  • 1/2 cup cooked beans
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter

The Facts on Fat

Fat is an essential nutrient needed for good health. Most Americans, however, eat too much of it. Fat has been given a great deal of attention in recent years for two reasons. First, fat provides more calories than any other nutrient. Second, a fatty diet can promote heart disease, cancer, and obesity (being very overweight) and is the biggest nutrition concern among Americans. Not all fats are created equal, however. There are two major types of fat: saturated fat and unsaturated fat. There is also a substance known as cholesterol, but it is not the same as fat.

SATURATED FAT. Saturated fat is also referred to as the "bad" fat because it is the type that is responsible for clogging the arteries and raising blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, such as margarine, butter, lard, or the fats in and on meat. In comparison, unsaturated fats are liquids. Foods that contain a lot of saturated fat are ground beef, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, bologna, whole and 2% milk, cheese, ice cream, and butter. Many baked goods and snack foods are also high in saturated fats.

UNSATURATED FAT. Unsaturated fat is also known as the "good" fat because it does not clog arteries. But that does not mean people can eat all of the unsaturated fat they want. Too much fat of any kind can be unhealthy. Unsaturated fats are fats that are liquid at room temperature like vegetable oil.

CHOLESTEROL. Cholesterol, a cousin to fat, is a steroid found only in foods that come from animals, like egg yolks, organ meats, and cheese. Foods low in cholesterol are not necessarily low in fat. An example is vegetable oil; it is 100 percent fat but has no cholesterol because it comes from a plant and not an animal.


The mineral iron is needed to keep your blood healthy. It delivers oxygen to all of your body tissues. A low iron level in the blood is called iron-deficiency anemia and is very common during the teenage years. It is more common in girls who are menstruating than in boys, but it remains a common nutrition problem among this age group. Having anemia (low iron levels in the blood) means that blood has the reduced ability to carry oxygen to the body's cells and tissues. This can result in feeling tired, an inability to tolerate a usual amount of activity or exercise, headaches, dizziness, and feeling short of breath. It can also affect schoolwork because being tired all the time makes it more difficult to perform well in school.

To prevent anemia, include iron-rich foods at every meal. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from foods better and should be eaten with ironrich foods. Not all foods from the meat and meat alternatives group are good sources of iron, however. The best sources are chicken and red meat. Beans, peanut butter, and foods from other food groups such as cereals, spinach, and raisins are also good sources of iron.

Saturated fat and cholesterol in food can raise the body's blood cholesterol level. A high blood cholesterol level is one of the risks for heart disease. Heart disease is the clogging of the arteries, and it happens over a long period of time. It starts in the teen years and can eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke if it goes unchecked. The American Heart Association recommends a diet that provides less than 30 percent of its calories from fat. People can slow down or stop the buildup of fat and cholesterol in their arteries by making good food choices now. On the other hand, people should remember that the body still needs some fat to be healthy. Following a completely fat-free diet is harmful to a person's overall health. A fat-free diet also won't guarantee that a person won't get heart disease.

Although people do need some fat in their diets, most people get too much, especially the saturated kind. For best health, people should try to eat fewer higher fat foods. If a person follows the guidelines of the food pyramid and eats plenty of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, it isn't difficult to eat the right amount of fat. In addition, one should select milk and dairy foods made from low-fat or skim milk as well as skinless poultry, fish, and lean cuts of meat. Higher fat food choices need to be balanced with lower fat ones so that it all evens out at the end of the day.

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