The role model plate for healthy eating in the UK – the ‘eatwell’ plate – (or the eatbadly plate, as I call it) informs us that there are five food groups (my notes in blue):
– Fruit and vegetables; (fruit and vegetables are so different, they should never appear in the same category together)
– Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods; (should be called “things that make you fat”)
– Milk and dairy foods; (milk is a dairy food, duh!)
– Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar; (this is not a food group; it’s a description and of two polar opposites) and
– Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein. (everything other than pure fats & sucrose contain protein, so virtually every non-dairy food falls into this category).
The US My Plate also thinks that there are five food groups – just different ones:
– Protein; and
My note – protein is a macro nutrient, not a food group. The other four food groups all contain protein (and fat and carbohydrate – just to list all three macro nutrients). This is ignorant in the extreme. I’ve dissected it here.
Australian children are also taught by Healthy kids Australia that there are five food groups – different ones again:
– Grain (cereal foods);
– Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds; and
– Vegetables, legumes and beans.
My note – this is slightly better in that it doesn’t confuse a macro nutrient with a food group. However, lumping the most nutritious foods into one group and specifying lean meats is bad advice.
There is no definitive list of food groups, so I’ll propose one:
– Nuts & seeds;
– Legumes (beans, pulses, etc); and
That would make nine groups.
Meat could further break down into red meat, game, poultry. Fish could be categorised as oily fish, white fish, seafood. Starchy vegetables (potatoes, root vegetables) could be set aside from green leafy vegetables and so on. However, as basic food groups go, the nine work well.
As for fats: butter comes under dairy products; lard and meat juices are by-products of (cooking) meat; and oils can be derived from fruit (avocado, olive), seeds (sesame, sunflower), legumes (peanut), or nuts (coconut) etc and hence haven’t been assigned to a separate category.
Dieticians seem to get quite exercised about cutting out whole food groups (notwithstanding food groups having been wrongly defined). They don’t seem to mind when vegetarians cut out meat and fish or even when vegans cut out meat, fish, eggs and dairy. However, they don’t like people cutting out starchy foods – the things that make us fat.
Most people should be OK including some foods from all food groups. Some people (of Asian origin especially) have lactose intolerance and are well advised to avoid dairy.
The most nutritious food groups to choose from are meat/fish/eggs/vegetables/seeds and dairy if you are OK with it. We can get every nutrient we need from meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and seeds. We have no need for fruit, legumes and grains, although they can make enjoyable and versatile additions to our diet, if we can tolerate a higher level of carbohydrate.
There is some debate as to how ‘real’ some of these nine food groups are – dairy and grains are relatively recent additions to our diet. As a general rule, the longer we have been eating something (animals), the more natural/real it is as a food source.
I have yet to meet a human being who benefits from eating wheat (see Wheat Belly and Grain Brain to discover why), but wheat isn’t a food group – it’s one grain and there are better grain choices if you do eat grains, such as brown rice, natural oats, quinoa etc.
Note that sucrose is not in a food group anywhere – nor is much of the cr@p on the UK eatbadly plate – sugary cereal, cola, cakes, biscuits, baked beans, white bagels, chocolate, fruit in syrup, soya drink etc.
My dietary advice
My three key messages are:
1) Eat real food!
Every food from the nine food groups should be eaten in its most natural form – meat with the skin/fat on; whole vegetables, not juice; whole fruits, not dried fruit or juice; brown rice, not white refined etc.
2) Three times a day.
That’s an ideal maximum – if two meals work for you, fine. If your lifestyle demands four, OK. But, unless you are a cow, or want to be the size of one – STOP GRAZING!
3) Manage carb intake.
If (1) and (2) don’t get you to natural weight and optimal health, manage your carb intake. If you are diabetic or very obese, manage your carb intake from the outset. The Harcombe Diet® gets people into the habit of having ‘fat’ meals (based on meat/fish/eggs/dairy) or ‘carb’ meals (based on legumes, grains, starchy veg, fruit). Non starchy veg can be eaten with any meal. Have no more than 1, possibly 0, carb meals a day if very carb sensitive/insulin resistant/diabetic/very obese (Note below).
I hope that this helps to provide a better definition of food groups and far more concise and effective dietary advice than you’ll get from the millions of pages of public health documents and non-science (aka nonsense).
(Note: diabetics should work with their doctors before making any dietary changes. A good doctor will work with a patient to reduce carbs and meds.)