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Exploring the Food Groups

This article provides an in-depth discussion of the four main food groups and their benefits.

In this article, you will find:

Grains and starches

Exploring the Food Groups

Besides the wonderful aromas, flavors, and textures that food has, each food group provides varying amounts of diverse nutrients. Each one of the five food groups supplies some, but not all, of the nutrients you need for good health. For this reason, it's key that you eat from each food group every day.

Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta Group
The base of the Food Guide Pyramid includes all foods made from grains. These foods should form the base of a nutritious diet. Foods in the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group--or the starch group--are rich in complex carbohydrates (or starches). Complex carbohydrates are an excellent source of energy. They are low in fat and cholesterol and are your body's main source of energy.

Health experts agree that you should consume at least half of your total daily calories from carbohydrates, especially complex carbohydrates. The Food Guide Pyramid suggests consuming six to eleven servings from the starch group each day. This may seem like a lot, but servings add up quicker than you realize, so keep serving sizes in mind.

One serving equals any of the following:

  • One slice enriched or whole-grain bread
  • ½ medium bagel
  • One 6-inch tortilla
  • ½ cup cooked rice or pasta
  • ½ cup cooked oatmeal or cream of wheat
  • ¾ cup ready-to-eat cereal
Fact: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (PDA) now requires that enriched, refined grain products (such as breads, flours, cornmeals, rice, noodles, macaroni, and other grain products) be fortified with folic acid, a form of folate. Folate is a B vitamin that has been found to reduce the incidence of certain neural-tube birth defects in newborn babies. Whole-grain foods naturally contain some folate.

Grain foods, especially whole grains, supply vitamin E and B vitamins such as folic acid, as well as minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc. Whole grains (like whole wheat) are rich in fiber and higher in other important nutrients. In fact, eating plenty of whole grain breads, bran cereals, and other whole-grain foods can easily provide half of your fiber needs for an entire day. Eating whole grains provides you with more vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytoestrogens, lignans, antioxidants, and other protective substances that you lose when grains are refined. Whole grains add more flavor and texture to foods. When consuming your needed number of servings from the starch group, aim to get at least three servings from a whole-grain source.

Whole Grains vs Refined Grains
Whole grains are more nutritious and wholesome than refined grains. Whole grain is the entire edible part of any grain, including wheat, corn, oats, and rice. Refined grains go through a milling process in which parts of the grain are removed. Refined grains, such as white rice or white bread, are low in fiber and other important nutrients. In refined grains, many of the essential nutrients are lost in processing. Some nutrients are added back, or the product is enriched, but this usually does not include all of the nutrients that were lost. To increase your intake of whole-grain foods, look for words such as whole grain, whole wheat, rye, bulgur, brown rice, oatmeal, whole oats, pearl barley, and whole-grain corn as one of the first words in the ingredient list on a food label.

What is the difference between "fortified" and "enriched"? Fortified means that nutrients are added that were not presently found in the food. For example, some varieties of orange juice are fortified with calcium. Enriched means that nutrients that originally belonged to the food were added back. These are nutrients that may have been lost in processing. When a grain product is enriched, B vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid are added back to the refined grain.

Smart Starch Choices
The Food Guide Pyramid suggests building a healthy base by making a variety of grain foods the foundation of your diet. To get the most out of this important food group, follow some of the following tips.

  • Choose breads, cereals, and pastas made from whole wheat or whole grain more often. Rye and pumpernickel breads are also high in fiber.
  • Look for the words "high in fiber" or "good source of fiber" on food labels.
  • Look for breads, rolls, and muffins with 3 grams of fat or less per serving.
  • Try new foods in the grain group, such as quinoa, millet, or couscous.
  • Try grains in your salads by adding pastas, rice, or bulgur (as in tabouli).
  • Look for the word "whole" in front of grains such as barley, corn, oats, rice, or wheat.
  • Choose brown rice more often than white. Brown rice is the only type of whole-grain rice.
  • Look for varieties of cereal that offer at least 3 grams of fiber, have 3 grams of fat or less, and that include 8 grams or less of sugar per serving.
  • Choose breads, crackers, and crunchy snacks with less fat and sugar.

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