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Nutrition-Food Guide Pyramid Nutrition Home: Tools

food pyramid - a general guide for food and nutrition choices

Food Guide Pyramid

Next: Food Label
The Food Pyramid, developed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is an excellent tool to help you make healthy food choices. The food pyramid can help you choose from a variety of foods so you get the nutrients you need, and the suggested serving sizes can help you control the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar or sodium in your diet.

  • Use the Food Pyramid to guide your choices
  • Choose lowfat dairy and lean meat
  • Limit saturated fat to 10% of your calories
  • Base fat intake on calorie needs





Fats and sweets:
Eat Sparingly

Dairy: Get your
calcium



Veggie & fruits:
Good source of
vitamins






What is serving
and portion?


USDA Food Pyramid

Protein: Meat
with less fat





Grains, pasta, &
cereals
:
Good
source of energy

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Bread, Grain, Cereal and Pasta Form the Base
At the base of the food pyramid, you’ll see the group that contains breads, grains, cereals and pastas. These foods provide complex carbohydrates, which are an important source of energy, especially for a low-fat meal plan. You can make many low-fat choices from foods in this group. You’ll need 6 to 11 servings of these foods in a day. One serving of this group can be:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/2 cup of rice, cooked cereal or pasta
  • 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal
  • 1 flat tortilla

Try to eat whole-grain breads, cereal and pasta for most of your servings from this group. Whole-grain foods (which are made with whole wheat flour) are less processed and retain more valuable vitamins, minerals and fiber than foods made with white flour. When you purchase whole-grain foods, look for breads and pastas with "stoneground whole wheat flour" as the first ingredient, because some "wheat" breads may be white breads with only caramel coloring added.

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Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients. Many are excellent sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, folate or potassium. They are low in fat and sodium and high in fiber. The Food Pyramid suggests 3 to 5 servings of vegetables each day. One serving of vegetables can be:

  • 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables
  • 1/2 cup of other vegetables, cooked or raw
  • 3/4 cup of vegetable juice

The Food Pyramid suggests 2 to 4 servings of fruit each day. One serving of fruit can be:

  • One medium apple, orange or banana
  • 1/2 cup of chopped, cooked or canned fruit
  • 3/4 cup of fruit juice

Count only 100% fruit juice as a fruit, and limit juice consumption. Many commercial bottled juices come in containers that hold more than 2 servings – which can add lots of sugar and calories to your daily diet. Punches, ades and most fruit "drinks" have only a bit of juice and lots of sugar. Fruit sodas are sugary drinks, and they don’t count as fruit, either.

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Beans, Eggs, Lean Meat and Fish
Meat, poultry and fish supply protein, iron and zinc. Non-meat foods such as dried peas and beans also provide many of these nutrients. The Food Pyramid suggests 2 to 3 servings of cooked meat, fish or poultry. Each serving should be between 2 and 3 ounces. The following foods count as one ounce of meat:

  • One egg
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup cooked dry beans
  • 1/3 cup of nuts

Choose lean meat, fish and dry beans and peas often because these are the lowest in fat. Remove skin from poultry and trim away visible fat on meat. Avoid frying these foods. Moderation is the watchword when it comes to nuts because they are high in fat.

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Dairy Products
Products made with milk provide protein and vitamins and minerals, especially calcium. The Food Pyramid suggests 2 to 3 servings each day. If you are breastfeeding, pregnant, a teenager or a young adult age 24 or under, try to have 3 servings. Most other people should have 2 servings daily. Interestingly, cottage cheese is lower in calcium that most other cheeses - one cup counts as only 1/2 serving of milk. Go easy on high-fat cheese and ice cream. Choose non-fat milk and yogurt and cheeses made from skim milk because they are lowest in fat.

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Fats and Sweets
A food pyramid's tip is the smallest part, so the fats and sweets in the top of the Food Pyramid should comprise the smallest percentage of your daily diet. The foods at the top of the food pyramid should be eaten sparingly because they provide calories but not much in the way of nutrition. These foods include salad dressings, oils, cream, butter, margarine, sugars, soft drinks, candies and sweet desserts.

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How Much Can You Feed Your Sweet Tooth?
Sugars found naturally in fruits and milk are not a problem. It’s the added sugars that need to be limited because they provide calories but few vitamins and minerals. You’ll find sugar-laden food at the top of the Food Pyramid. Added sugars can be found in soft drinks, candy, jams, jellies, syrups and table sugar we add to coffee and cereal. Added sugar can also appear in sweetened yogurt, soups, spaghetti sauces, applesauce and other items where you wouldn’t suspect it unless you check the list of ingredients.

Here are some guidelines for added sugar based on calories in the daily food choices:

1,600 calories - Limit sugar to 6 teaspoons per day or 22 grams per day
2,200 calories - Limit sugar to 12 teaspoons per day or 44 grams per day
2,800 calories - Limit sugar to 18 teaspoons per day or 66 grams per day

So if the food label on your sweetened yogurt says a one-cup serving contains 22 grams of sugar, and your meal plan has 1,600 calories a day, you’ve eaten your day’s allotment of sugar.

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What’s the Skinny on Fat? Base It On Your Caloric Needs
How much fat you can eat is based on your caloric needs. Medical experts from the American Heart Association recommend that Americans limit dietary fat to 30 percent of daily calories. Here are the fat grams allowed based on daily calories:

1,600 calories - Limit fat to 53 grams
2,200 calories - Limit fat to 73 grams
2,800 calories - Limit fat to 93 grams

You don’t need to count fat grams every day, but it’s a good idea to do a "fat checkup" occasionally to be sure you’re on the right track. Here’s how to figure the number of grams of fat that provide 30% of calories in your diet:

  1. Multiply your total day’s calories by 0.30 to get your calories from fat per day. If you eat 2,200 calories, multiply 2,200 by 0.30. The result is 660 calories from fat.

  2. Divide calories from fat per day by 9 (each fat gram has 9 calories) to get your grams of fat per day. So in our example, divide 660 calories by 9 and get 73 fat grams.

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Here’s How the Food Pyramid Can Guide You:

So What’s Your Caloric Limit?
You need to have enough calories every day in order for your body to have the nutrients it needs. How many calories that actually amounts to depends on a variety of factors including your:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Size
  • Activity level
  • Whether or not you are a pregnant or breastfeeding woman
  • Whether you have a chronic illness

The National Academy of Sciences recommends the following calorie categories:

1,600 calories - Many sedentary women and some older adults

2,200 calories - Children, teenage girls, active women and many sedentary men.

Women who are pregnant may need around 500 calories more per day and an additional 300 calories for breast-feeding.

2,800 calories - Teenage boys, active men and very active women

It’s possible that you may be between calorie categories on the chart. If you are then you will need to estimate servings. For example, some less active women may need only 2,000 calories to maintain a healthy weight. If you are at this calorie level, 8 servings from the grain group would be about right.

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How Many Servings Are Right For You?
Now that you know how many calories are suggested, you can address the question of how many servings of each food group you need. Here’s a chart that can help:

Lower
About 1,600
Moderate
About 2,200
Higher
About 2,800
Grain Group servings 6 9 11
Vegetable Group Servings 3 4 5
Fruit Group servings 2 3 4
Milk Group Servings 2-3 2-3 2-3
Meat Group 5 6 7

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So What’s a Portion Anyway?
This is where the food label can come in handy. For portion size on items like canned soup, yogurt, snack foods, sauces, etc., you can discover what is considered one serving by checking the top of the food label.

Here are some samples of what makes up one serving size:

About That Nice Big Bowl of Pasta...
What’s a Serving of Bread, Cereal, Rice or Pasta?

  • One slice of bread
  • 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal
  • 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice or pasta

Does One Carrot Cut It?
What’s a Vegetable Serving?

  • 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables
  • 1/2 cup of other vegetables cooked, or chopped raw
  • 3/4 cup of vegetable juice

It’s the Berries...
What’s a Fruit Serving?

  • 1 medium apple, orange or banana
  • 1/2 cup of chopped, cooked or canned fruit
  • 3/4 cup of fruit juice

Remember Your Dairy
What’s a Serving of Milk, Yogurt and Cheese?

  • 1 cup of milk or yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounce of natural cheese
  • 1 ounce of process cheese (remember that processed cheese usually contains a lot of sodium)

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Do You Need to Measure Servings
No. Just use servings as a general guide. Sometimes you’ll have to estimate the food group servings. For example a generous serving of pizza counts in the grain group (crust), milk group (cheese), and vegetable group (tomato, mushrooms, peppers and onions). Beef stew would count for both meat and vegetable groups.

Remember that both pizza and beef stew can have lots of fat. It’s in the pizza cheese, sausage and pepperoni and in the meat drippings that may be used to make gravy.

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What Should You Do to Gain or Lose Weight?
You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s true. The best way to lose weight is to increase the amount of physical activity you get and reduce the fat and sugar in your food choices. Remember to eat at least the minimum number of servings from the five food groups shown in the Food Pyramid. If you choose fat and sugar rich foods and eliminate healthy foods, you won’t be getting the nutrition you need. Try to choose from the lowest fat choices in the food groups.

If you need to gain weight, increase the amount of food you eat from all of the food groups. If you have lost weight unexpectedly, see your doctor.

The Food Guide Pyramid can be extremely useful - whether you want to gain weight, lose weight or maintain your weight. Eating a healthy diet is a little easier if you base your choices on the Food Pyramid.

Next: Food Label

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