The proportions of a healthy diet can be best visualized as a pyramid cut into layers—a lot of grains make up the base, followed by vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meats, and oils. The pyramid metaphor as a healthy food guide hasn’t changed, but the makeup and even size of each layer is constantly being refined as more nutritional research is conducted. Here are the basics of the current healthy food pyramid, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. For an individual recommendations tailored to your age and calorie needs, visit the food pyramid’s official home on the web at MyPyramid.gov.
Grains still make up the base of the pyramid, but the United States Department of Agriculture now recommends that at least half of your total daily grain intake (7 ounces for adults, 5 for kids) be made of whole grains. Whole grains (like multigrain bread, brown rice, and oatmeal) contain parts of the grain that otherwise get stripped off in processing, depriving you of fiber, iron, and B vitamins. While the iron and B vitamins must be added back in to refined grains (as in “enriched” flour), the fiber isn’t, so there’s no substitute for whole grains.
Vegetables may be more complicated than you remember—they can be subdivided into 5 mini-groups, composed of dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli), orange vegetables (like carrots and pumpkin), starchy vegetables (like potatoes and corn), dried peas and beans (like chickpeas and lentils), and miscellaneous vegetables (everything else). Kids should eat at least 1.5 cups a day, and grown-ups, at least 3. Different vegetable sub-groups have different vitamins and benefits, so try to eat vegetables from all 5 groups over the course of a week.
The rules for the fruit and dairy food groups are simpler. For fruits, eat 2 cups a day (or 1 cup, for the kids). For dairy products, aim for 3 servings for adults and 2 servings for kids; whatever you choose, try to keep it low-fat—milks, cheeses, or yogurts. If you don’t tolerate dairy products well, try lactose-free dairy products or equivalent servings of calcium-fortified dairy substitutes, like soymilk. Fruits provide fiber for digestion and vitamin C for healthy skin and gums, and dairy provides vitamin D and calcium, which are crucial for bone health.
And did you know that nuts, seeds, and fish are actually part of the meat group? Nuts and fish, like meat, provide protein, which the body uses to build muscle and other tissues, but nuts and fish have the added benefit of offering vitamin E and unsaturated fatty acids, which are good for heart health. Most Americans eat too much meat, but not enough nuts and fish. Meat offers iron and magnesium, but some non-meat proteins like eggs and liver have lots of cholesterol, so keep those omelets small. Adults should have 6 ounces of foods from this group per day, and kids should have four.
Even oils have their place as a food group. Adults should aim for 6 teaspoons a day, and kids, 4, but these numbers can be tricky. Oils are already found in a lot of the foods that already have a place in the healthy food pyramid, such as peanuts and salad dressings. Also, aim for plant oils like canola, olive, safflower, soybean or corn rather than animal fats like butter and lard, but use all added fats and oils sparingly.
The essentials of healthy eating haven’t changed too much over the years, though the current food pyramid may be a little different from what you learned in school. Get familiar with it!