The Five Food Groups

Is it the best model for achieving healthy nutrition?

Fresh fruit and vegetables the key to nourishment
The five food groups model doesn't adequately reflect the overwhelming importance of eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit in your diet.

Our constantly improving knowledge of nutrition raises important questions about the traditional assumptions underlying the 'balanced diet.'

These traditional assumptions are reflected in the well-known five food groups model.

Health authorities around the world have long used local variations of this model to underpin healthy eating guidelines.

The basic principle is that for healthy nutritional diversity, our daily diet should include recommended amounts of food from each of the five food groups.

By doing so it's claimed we will achieve an adequate and balanced supply of the nutrients we require for good health.

But how does this approach really stand up in the light of our current nutritional knowledge? Is it the best way to go?


1  The five food groups model is flawed

The fact is, the five food groups model no longer reflects the best available nutritional knowledge

The model has a number of flaws

1. It promotes grains as the food group of we should consume in greatest amounts - including cereals, bread, rice and pasta. The evidence does not support the need for this.

2. By highlighting grains as the most important food group, the model doesn't adequately reflect the overwhelming importance we should give to fresh vegetables and fruit.

The five food groups
The five food groups -
the best way to rich nutritional diversity?

3. It advocates significant and regular consumption of meat and dairy products although the evidence doesn't support the need for this.

4. It fails to highlight the harm done by our over-dependance on packaged and manufactured foods, not to mention the problem of over-consumption of junk foods and fast foods.

5. The emphasis on balancing food groups rather than on balancing nutrients and avoiding toxins is too simplistic and does not lead to an understanding of the role of nutrients.

6. It ignores several key issues that are crucial for maximising nourishment (e.g. maintaining a good alkaline-acid balance and maintaining adequate fluid levels.)


2  Why the five food groups model persists

Why, despite the mounting evidence of its shortcomings, do authorities continue to promote the five food groups model?

There are two major reasons why the five food groups model, despite its shortcomings, continues to enjoy the support of health authorities

These are its perceived educational value as a simple and effective educational tool, and its economic importance in supporting the aims of the modern food industry complex.

Educational value

It's commonly argued that the vast majority of people find it easier to relate to the types of foods they eat rather than to trying to understand how to balance the nutrient content of particular foods, clearly an added layer of complexity.

It's thought that if people eat a varied diet every day embracing the five food types, they will most likely consume a healthy variety of nutrients in the process.

If you complicate this by telling people what nutrients they should consume, people will switch off, deciding it's all too hard to be bothered with.

Five food groups
The five food groups - a useful educational model?

This appears to make common sense, especially when it comes to educating children; or for that matter adults with little knowledge of nutrition concepts, and lacking any real interest in learning something about them.

As a basic tool the five food groups model is certainly simple to learn. And if followed with some diligence by people needing elementary nutrition advice, you might expect to see beneficial results.

There is little evidence in support of this happening, however. In fact, our experience suggests the opposite is true.

The five food groups model has been with us for decades, and has been quite widely promoted.

As an Educational tool

The five food groups or a similar scheme are often expressed as a diagram, generally called the nutrition pyramid or food pyramid or something similar.

Yet during that same period we've seen our populations become increasingly overweight and obese, and witnessed a staggering growth in rates of degenerative, lifestyle diseases - diabetes, heart diseases, stroke and some forms of cancer. These diseases are linked beyond doubt with unhealthy eating habits. More and more of us die from them, or are deprived of active and productive lives in our advanced years.

Either the message isn't getting through, or it's the wrong message. Either way, the education benefit of the five food groups approach must be questioned.

Why then, despite doubts about the effectiveness of the five food groups model, do health authorities merely tinker around its edges, while it continues to survive unscathed in principle?

Economic Importance

A key reason for this inertia is the political influence wielded by interest groups wedded to the continuation of existing policies.

Influence of the food industry on healthy eating guidelines
The food industry -
Key role in promoting the five food groups model?

These groups include the dairy, meat and grain industries, and those who bring their products to consumers.

Among these are corporations engaged in food processing and manufacturing, packing, transporting, distributing and marketing food products, and of course food retailers, especially the supermarket giants.

Stakeholders in these industries, including their shareholders, investors, managers and employees, have a compelling interest in their survival and profitability. Taken in total, this comprises a powerful lobby group wanting to retain the status quo.

Politicians, too, want to protect jobs, investments and economic health in the cities, towns and regions where their voters live.

All of this is perfectly understandable. But it's hard getting to the bottom of the best foods for our bodies, when vested interests clamber to convince us to eat the foods that are healthiest for jobs, profits and votes.


3  So what should we eat?

Healthy eating need not be a mystery

Sound and simple principles follow from what we know about nutrition

These principles are incorporated into the 6 Healthy Habits promoted on this website.

Once you understand these few basic principles, the rest is easy.

Your body is designed to be healthy; and evolution has provided you with all the in-built resources you need to keep it that way. You have a marvellously intelligent mind-body body system that is capable of maintaining you in perfect health, if you let it.

Even those among us unfortunate enough to carry a genetic disorder or some other setback making perfect health perhaps unattainable, can expect immense benefits from adopting a healthy lifestyle.

When it comes to guidance on what you should eat, the best advice is simple.

Aim for a diet that includes about 70% fruit and vegetables.

Which ones?

These principles of healthy nutrition will help you develop the art of making healthy food choices, including what to eat for the remaining 30% of your total food intake.

Healthy eating isn't as difficult as it might sound. Start by making sure you include salads and vegetables with your meals wherever you can, and at least sometimes try healthy snacking on fruit, berries, nuts and seeds rather than always chewing chocolates and chips will take you most of the way there.

A healthy grapefruit snack
Grapefruit is an example of a healthy snack.

For example, snacking on a grapefruit is a healthy alternative to a chocolate bar.

Both red and white grapefruit contain antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Eaten regularly, grapefruit appears to reduce both cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

There's evidence too that naringenin, a plant compound found in grapefruit, may help repair damaged DNA in human prostate cancer cells, helping to stop cancer cells from multiplying.

It also appears that grapefruit can help with weight loss, possibly due to lowering insulin levels.

Don't like grapefruit? No problem, this is just an example. There are any number of options for healthy snacks and meals using natural plant-based foods with specific health benefits. You'll find many suggestions on this website.

Healthy drinks and smoothies made from blended or juiced fruits and vegetables are also a nutritios and enjoyable way to helpyou reach your objective of eating 70% fruit and vegetables. And remember, you still have 30% of your food intake to indulge your fancies.


4  Ideal Nourishment

The objective of healthy eating is to provide your body with ideal nourishment

Nourishment depends on both the quality of nutrients present in the foods you eat, and the effectiveness of your digestive system

How you eat can be as important as what you eat. For example if you rush your food, on the go, while stressed, your digestive system will not perform efficiently. You can maximise the nourishment you get from your food by adopting these simple but powerful healthy eating habits.

These healthy eating habits are NOT a weight loss diet. Be very careful with diets. Diets don't work, they're not fun, and some popular ones may harm you.

The 6 Healthy Habits will give you the tools to achieve lasting personal change. They emphasise principles of healthy nutrition and nutrition facts that have prepared us better than at any time in human history to make informed and healthy choices about what we eat. And it's enjoyable because food that is good for you is actually the nicest food to eat.


More on Healthy Nutrition

Try these 10 healthy eating tips to maximize your nourishment.

This food nutrition guide explains how to nourish your body for outstanding health based on the 5 types of nutrients your body needs for perfect health.

In our affluent societies we have greater nutrition knowledge than ever before, but large numbers of people suffer from lifestyle malnutrition - we are overfed and undernourished. This malnutrition is a creeping killer that affects us all.

This is despite the fact that for many decades governments have vigorously promoted healthy eating guidelines. Yet the standard western diet has become increasingly unhealthy, and lifestyle diseases have increased their hold on the population. In most advanced countries these guidelines have been based on some variation of what is generally known as the five food groups. This has often been communicated to the masses by means of a diagram known as the nutrition pyramid, sometimes called the food pyramid.

Current knowledge overturns traditional notions of a 'balanced diet' based on the Five Food Groups (back to top) and the Nutrition Pyramid.

Soar through life with the 6 Healthy Habits

  1. Live Consciously
  2. Act Responsibly
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  4. Nourish your Body
  5. Nourish your Mind
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Examples of the Five food Groups

Food groups are listed in order of the emphasis that should be placed on them in your diet.

For example the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that we give greatest emphasis in our diet to grains, and least to meat and beans. But all groups should be included on a daily basis.

All authorities offer guidelins as to serving and portion sizes.

United States (Department of Agriculture)

  1. grains
  2. vegetables
  3. fruits
  4. milk
  5. meat and beans

United Kingdom (National Health Service)

  1. starchy foods, such as rice, wholewheat pasta and bread, and potatoes
  2. fruit and vegetables
  3. meat, fish, eggs and beans
  4. milk and dairy foods
  5. foods containing fat and sugar

Australia (Commonwealth Department of Health and Family Services)

  1. bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles
  2. vegetables, legumes
  3. fruit
  4. milk, yoghurt, cheese
  5. meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes

These examples were current in February 2010.