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What the Food Groups Do For You

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Nutritionists have been stressing the importance of a balanced diet for a reason. Each food group, including vegetables and fruits, whole grains, dairy, protein, and fats and oils, offers a different nutrient package that is essential for maintaining good health.

Incorporating all food groups in every meal is not necessary, but consuming something from each group over the course of a day is important. Over the longer term, like a week or a month, strive to eat a variety of foods from within each group, especially vegetables and fruits.

Here’s a quick overview of what each food group has to offer and how much we should all be consuming.

Vegetables and Fruits

Fruits and vegetables are associated with reduced risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, and dementia. The nutrients and fiber in fruits and vegetables provide numerous benefits, such as vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.

Fiber, which is present in fruits and vegetables, helps in maintaining bowel health, increased insulin sensitivity, and slower digestion, which makes you feel fuller for longer. Increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables may also improve your overall diet by replacing less healthy foods.

The USDA now recommends daily consumption of 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and another 1½ to 2 cups of fruit.

Whole Grains

Carbohydrates are primarily an energy source for your body, but whole grains, like quinoa, barley, and brown rice, have additional health benefits. Whole grains are packaged with natural fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that deliver additional health benefits.

Research shows that people who eat whole grains tend to live longer and have a lower risk of chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease. Refined grains, like white flour, have been stripped of their fiber-rich bran, as well as the vitamin- and mineral-packed germ.

The recommended intake of whole grains is 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women up to age 50. For people over age 50, the recommendation is lower: 30 grams for men and 21 grams for women.

Dairy

Dairy is associated with improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents. While adults don’t need to consume dairy products, dairy foods offer protein and an array of vitamins and minerals, including calcium.

Some dairy foods, like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and other cheeses, are better sources of protein than others like milk and regular yogurt. However, many types of cheese are high in sodium and saturated fat. If you can’t consume dairy or prefer not to, make sure you meet your calcium needs through other foods or supplements.

Protein

Protein is essential to maintaining muscles, bones, skin, and every other organ and tissue in your body. Protein helps you stay satisfied and manage hunger. Emerging research suggests that you should have some protein at all three meals, especially if you are older.

Protein foods are a diverse group, including both animal sources like fish, meats and poultry, and plant sources like soy products, pulses, nuts, and seeds. Quality counts when it comes to protein-rich foods, and some have more health benefits than others. Salmon and other oily fish provide heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, while pulses and minimally processed soy foods like tofu and edamame offer phytochemicals and fiber.

However, fatty or processed meats come with excess saturated fat and other components that don’t support optimal health. It’s important to note that while it’s important to get enough protein, more is not necessarily better.

Fats and Oils

Fat is a major source of energy for the body and is essential in making cell membranes, providing a protective coating for nerves, maintaining healthy skin and hair, and performing other vital functions. Scientists now know that it’s not how much fat we eat, but the quality of the fat that matters.

It’s important to avoid artificial trans fats, which were once used in processed foods to prevent spoilage. Fortunately, they have been banned from foods sold in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants. Saturated fats, found in animal products like meat and cheese, should be consumed in limited amounts, less than 10% of daily calories. They may contribute to health problems, including increased LDL cholesterol and chronic inflammation if eaten in excess.

Most of the fat we eat should be unsaturated, which includes polyunsaturated fats from fatty fish like salmon, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, and some vegetable oils. Monounsaturated fats from nuts, peanuts, avocados, olive oil, and canola oil are also beneficial for health, especially cardiovascular health. Solid fats like marbling in meats may lead to stiffer arteries, while liquid fats like olive oil can help keep arteries more flexible.

Final Thoughts

Each food group offers a unique nutrient package essential for maintaining good health. Consuming something from each group over the course of a day and a variety of foods from within each group over a week or a month is important. By doing so, you can enjoy the benefits of reduced risk of chronic diseases, improved bowel health, increased insulin sensitivity, and slower digestion that makes you feel fuller for longer.

The recommended daily consumption is 2 to 3 cups of vegetables, 1½ to 2 cups of fruit, and 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women up to age 50 of whole grains. For people over age 50, the recommendation is lower: 30 grams for men and 21 grams for women. Protein foods are a diverse group, and it’s important to choose quality sources that offer health benefits like phytochemicals and fiber.

Most of the fat we eat should be unsaturated, while avoiding artificial trans fats and limiting saturated fats. By following these guidelines, you can achieve a balanced and nutritious diet that supports good health.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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