Different Types of Food: How to Keep a Balanced Diet Across Five Food Groups

Different Types of FoodHaving a “good” diet means different things for different folks. People have different body types that require different kinds of eating habits, allergies that make certain foods off limits, tight incomes that prevent them from having access to different types of food, not to mention ethical concerns that might keep some foods off the table by choice.

The first step to figuring out the healthiest diet for you is understanding the different types of food available in the first place. There are five primary food groups, each playing a vital role in most healthy and balanced diets. In this guide, we’ll go over the five major groups, explain what role each plays in your health, and list some examples from each group.

Not only will this guide help out anyone looking to improve their diet, it can also serve as a handy guide for aspiring chefs looking to gain a better understanding of the different types of food they have to work with. For more, check out this course on healthy cooking fundamentals.

The five main food groups we refer to in the United States were decided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Guidelines like this have been around since 1916, as a way to assist people in making the right dietary choices for themselves, and staying healthy in the process. The five main food groups include fruit, vegetables, protein foods, dairy, and grains. Find a detailed description of each below. Check out this guide for tips on preparing healthy food.

Grains

Grains are a staple in many diets around the world. Foods products that fall into the grain group include rice, bread, cereal, and oatmeal. Grains themselves are broken into two major groups: cereal and legume.

For the sake of consistency, and in keeping with the major food groups, we’ll cover legumes later on down the list, in proteins. Cereal grains are what most people associate with grain foods anyway. These are broken down into two separate subcategories: whole grains and refined grains.

You can read a much more detailed breakdown of the different types of grain foods in this guide.

In short, whole grains are grain products made from the entire grain kernel, including the germ, bran, and endosperm. These parts of the grain kernel contain the most nutrients, including fiber, protein, and vitamins, but also some fat. Removing these parts of the kernel in a process known as milling creates refined grain products.

Whole Grain Products

  • Amaranth
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Rolled oats
  • Sorghum
  • Triticale
  • Whole grain barley
  • Whole grain cornmeal
  • Whole rye
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat crackers
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Wild rice

Refined Grain Products

  • Corn bread
  • Corn flakes
  • Corn tortillas
  • Couscous
  • Crackers
  • Flour tortillas
  • Grits
  • Noodles
  • Pitas
  • Pretzels
  • Spaghetti
  • White bread
  • White rice

The USDA recommends people consume whole grain food products over refined grain products, for their high fiber content. While many refined grain products are enriched with iron and B vitamins, they’re still processed and considered an unhealthier option next to whole grain products.

Depending on your age and sex, the USDA recommends people consume an average of 6 ounces a day. Check out this baking course and learn how to prepare your own bread, or check out this baking tips guide for more info.

Proteins

Protein is a macronutrient, and one of the most important in a healthy diet. It’s present in every cell in the body, and used to create hormones, enzymes, and rebuild muscle after vigorous workouts. Because it can’t be stored in the body in the same way fat and carbs are, protein needs to be consumed regularly so that the body always has the needed amount.

Food in the protein food group comes in the form of meat, seafood, shellfish, beans, peas, soy products, eggs, nuts, and seeds. New and inexperienced vegetarians and vegans struggle the most with this food group, since the most accessible proteins come from animal products. Luckily, there are plenty of healthy non-meat protein foods, and a good helping of meat substitutes and alternatives as well. Check out this course for tips on how to do vegetarianism and veganism right for more information.

Below is an extensive list of protein foods, categorized by subgroup.

Meat

  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Ham
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Veal
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Turkey
  • Bison
  • Rabbit
  • Venison

Seafood

  • Anchovies
  • Catfish
  • Cod
  • Flounder
  • Haddock
  • Halibut
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Pollock
  • Porgy
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Sea bass
  • Snapper
  • Swordfish
  • Trout
  • Tuna

Shellfish

  • Clams
  • Crab
  • Crayfish
  • Lobster
  • Mussels
  • Octopus
  • Oysters
  • Scallops
  • Squid
  • Shrimp

Eggs

  • Chicken eggs
  • Duck eggs

Beans and Peas

  • Black beans
  • Black eyed peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Falafel
  • Kidney beans
  • Lentils
  • Lima beans
  • Navy beans
  • Pinto beans
  • Soy beans
  • Split peas
  • White beans

Nuts and Seeds

  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Pecans
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Walnuts

Soy Products

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Texturized vegetable protein

It’s best to consume lean and lower fat meats and poultry, or stick with seafood since it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids. Also watch your sodium intake, as many processed meats, nuts, and seeds can contain added salt. Depending on age and sex, the USDA recommends an average of five ounces of protein each day. It’s also recommended to consume about eight ounces of seafood in one week.

Dairy

Dairy products are an important source of calcium. They also contain a lot of saturated fat, so the USDA recommends consuming lower fat or even fat free dairy products. Products that are technically dairy, such as butter, cream, and cream cheese, count as dairy products, but aren’t recommended as a primary source of dairy over products like milk and cheese.

Because most dairy products are animal byproducts (with the exception of calcium enriched soymilk), this is a tough group for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. (Confused about the difference between veganism and vegetarianism? Check out this guide!) There are alternative sources of calcium that are both vegan and lactose free, though. For instance, one cup of baked beans contains about 13% of the recommended daily value of calcium. Oatmeal, nuts, vegetables like kale, spinach, and other dark leafy greens, and calcium fortified products like almond milk, rice milk, and soy milk all contain a ton of lactose-free calcium as well. People who are only slightly lactose intolerant, and not completely allergic, can usually get away with consuming about four fluid ounces of milk without upsetting their stomach too much.

Absolutely do not consume any lactose products if it is damaging to your body! Risking a little stomach upset for some added calcium is not a problem if you think you can handle it, and if you know you need the calcium, but don’t hurt yourself. There are other ways to receive the necessary calcium.

If you’re someone who’s calcium deficient or doesn’t often consume foods rich in calcium, lowering or stopping your consumption of soft drinks altogether is also highly recommended. Too much phosphate in the blood is harmful for the calcium in your bones, and can make it harder for them to absorb more calcium. Drinking too much soda is one cause of high phosphate in the blood, so cut it down! (It’s also packed with sugar and empty calories, so it’s probably best to just cut it down no matter who you are.)

Milk (Fluid)

  • Low fat milk (1%)
  • Reduced fat milk (2%)
  • Fat free milk (skim)
  • Whole milk
  • Flavored milk
  • Lactose reduced milk
  • Lactose free milk
  • Calcium fortified soymilk

Cheese

  • American
  • Cheddar
  • Cottage cheese
  • Feta
  • Mozzarella
  • Parmesan
  • Ricotta
  • Swiss

Yogurt

  • Low fat yogurt
  • Reduced fat yogurt
  • Fat free yogurt
  • Whole milk yogurt

The USDA recommends three cups of dairy products a day. Check out this guide to dairy and the different types of milk for more information. For more on maintaining a balanced vegan diet, check out this vegan/vegetarian cooking course, and this guide to the vegan food pyramid.

Fruit

Who doesn’t love fruit? Even young children who refuse to eat their vegetables must like fruit. They’re sweet and they’re good for you. Fruit can be consumed fresh, frozen, canned, dried, and juiced. If you choose to drink fruit juice for your daily intake, make sure to consume 100% fruit juices.

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cherries
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapes
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Mangoes
  • Nectarines
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Papayas
  • Pineapple
  • Plums
  • Prunes
  • Raisins
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Tangerines
  • Watermelon

The USDA recommends about a cup or two of fruit a day, the requirements of which can lower around the age of 30, to about 1/2.

Vegetables

Vegetables are super important in maintaining a healthy diet. Like fruit, they can be consumed fresh, frozen, dried, canned, and in a juice as long as it’s 100% vegetable juice. Check out this course to finding the best green juice recipe.

Dark Leafy Greens

  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Collard greens
  • Dark leafy green lettuce
  • Kale
  • Mesclun
  • Mustard greens
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Turnip greens
  • Watercress

Red and Orange Vegetables

  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Pumpkin
  • Red peppers
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato juice

Other

  • Artichokes
  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Bean sprouts
  • Beets
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Green beans
  • Green peas
  • Green peppers
  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Plantains
  • Potatoes
  • Taro
  • Water chestnuts
  • Zucchini

The recommended daily consumption of vegetables is about 2-3 cups each day. Check out this guide to the nine types of vegetables you should have in your diet today.

Go beyond the diet hype! Learn how to eat healthy the natural way with this course.