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Food Types: Understanding the Various Food Groups

Since the late 19th and early 20th century, recommendations for a healthy diet have changed repeatedly. Food groups have shifted and changed since the early 20th century, so what are the different types of food?

Food types are now grouped into what we know as the five food groups, although this has varied from four to seven over time. The five main groups are fruits and vegetables, starchy foods, dairy, proteins, and fats. Food charts have been reimagined every few years over the last century and based on government recommendations. 

This article will discuss types of food and how they fit into the ever-changing Food Groups, and how and why Nutritional guidelines are ever-changing. 

Understanding the Food Groups

Understanding today’s five food groups is more important than ever. Not all choices are healthy ones, and heart disease, diabetes, and obesity are on the rise. 

The charts are nothing more than a guide to healthy eating. Scientists continually conduct studies on how food affects the body, and these studies provide the USDA with constantly updated information. 

Nutritional guidelines follow the accepted science of the time, so the next section will show you how the Nutritional Guidelines have changed over the last century.

For an article on the difference between “food’ and “foods,” make sure you read our article on the plural form of “food.”

A Short History of Nutritional Guidelines

First, what is a nutritional guide, and what are food groups? According to the USDA, a nutrition guide provides nutrition advice to maintain good health. This guide breaks food down into groups and provides serving sizes.

Food groups share similar nutritional and biological properties. The USDA regulates both the nutritional guides and food groups, based upon scientific studies. Food types are the foods categorized within each group.

Over the last 100 years, anywhere from four to seven food groups have been in existence. Below is a short timeline of how food groups and nutrition guidelines have changed within this past century.

Private Guidelines

Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater published the very first nutrition guidelines, essentially a bulletin for farmers.

In 1904 he published additional guidelines in Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food. In this guide, he recommended a balance in portions, called for moderation, and spoke of measuring your caloric intake (source). 

This guide focused on nutrient-dense food and eating less fat, sugar, and starch.

In 1916 a new guide entitled Food for Young Children was introduced by Caroline Hunt, a nutritionist. In this guide, she separated foods into six categories — milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, sugars, and sugary foods.   

The book How to Select food followed quickly on the heels of the 1916 publication, further promoting the above five food groups. These guidelines remained in place until the 1930s. 

Early USDA Guidelines and the Basic 7

The American Stockmarket crashed in 1929, marking the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1933, the US was in the midst of the Great Depression when the USDA published four different food guides targeting socio-economic status (source).

In the year 1941, the very first food guide was published with Recommended Dietary Allowances. This guide incorporates the specific number of calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and D in each food type.

The Basic 7 was introduced by the USDA in 1943 during the Second World War.

This guide, as the title tells you, incorporates seven food groups. The seven groups were to help the population remain healthy under food rationing — the limiting of foods and scarce resources due to the war (source).

The Basic 7 groups are:

  • Green & yellow vegetables — some raw, some cooked, canned, or frozen
  • Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit as well as raw cabbage, salad greens.
  • Potatoes, other vegetables, & fruits raw, dried, cooked, frozen, or canned.
  • Milk & milk products, including fluid, evaporated, dried milk, & cheese.
  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dried beans, peas, nuts, or peanut butter.
  • Bread, flour, cereals from natural whole grain, enriched or restored.
  • Butter and fortified margarine enriched with Vitamin A.

The Basic 7 food guide stayed in effect until 1956.

1956 through 1992

Beginning in 1956, the USDA went from recommending seven primary food groups down to four. The four food groups are; milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and bread and cereals. The foods not included were to be eaten to round out one’s diet. 

The other foods included butter, margarine, cooking oil, salad dressing, sauces, jellies, and syrups to be used sparingly.

The four basic food group recommendations remained in place until 1992, when the Food Pyramid was born.

The Food Pyramid

In 1992 the USDA introduced the Food Pyramid. The Food Pyramid represents five food groups shaped like a pyramid. Each food group has a box containing types of food and the amount of recommended servings per day.

In 2005, the Food Pyramid became MyPyramid and put more emphasis on whole grains and exercise. MyPyramid represents the food groups as colored slices with a key underneath. A person is depicted walking up steps on the side (source). 

Both pyramids fall short as they label all fat bad. MyPyramid doesn’t even show the recommended number of servings per day in each food group.


MyPlate strolled into the picture in 2011, leaving behind the pyramid format.

The “plate” is divided into four sections with a glass of milk at the top. The five food groups are in pie form on a plate. Once again, fats are bad. MyPlate was updated in 2015 (source).

Food Groups 2015–2020 

The recommendations in the last couple of decades have seen minor changes and included recommendations for movement and exercise. The five food groups in place as of 2020 are explained below. 

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are the backbone of a healthy diet. According to Food Standards Scotland, we need to eat five portions per day of each — five fruits and five vegetables.

It would be nice if it were five servings combined, but, alas, you must eat a total of 10 portions in this category (source).

Most people enjoy at least one type of fruit, and it’s not hard to eat the five recommended portions. Most fruit can make your morning cereal sweet, especially bananas.

Any fruit is a great pick-me-up when you hit that afternoon slump. A nutrient-packed snack will last until dinner. 

Vegetables also have numerous options. While it’s harder to find vegetables you enjoy, with so many choices supplied by nature, you’re assured of finding a few. 

Starchy Food

Starchy food gets a bad reputation. What do you think when offered a baked potato? Probably “No, thanks, potatoes are fattening.” This way of thinking is antiquated and hard to change. 

Other examples of starchy foods include noodles, bread, and rice. Whole grains, while often a healthier option, are still starch.

These foods are not harmful in the right proportions and are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins, and even calcium and iron. The secret to eating starchy foods is not to overeat them. 


Holstein Cattle, Cows, Heifers, Field, Dairy, Milk
Image by CallyL via Pixabay

Dairy in America comes mostly from dairy cows, bringing to mind black and white cows as they graze in the pasture.

Foods in the dairy group include cheese, cream, butter, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, milk, lactose-free milk, calcium-infused soy milk, and they come in fat-free to full-fat variants with something for everyone.

It is essential to consume dairy every day to maintain strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. 

Dairy food contains vital nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, protein, zinc, choline, magnesium, selenium, and Vitamins A, D, and B12 — the milk must be fortified with Vitamin D (source).

But I’m a Vegan

As a vegan, you’ve decided not to eat any products produced by animals. However, you still need all the nutrition dairy provides. Thankfully, the food industry produces alternatives with all the health benefits.

Milk substitutes include nut, rice, or soy milk that have been vitamin-fortified. 

Other non-dairy foods providing the necessary nutrition for bone support include juices with added calcium, canned fish, such as sardines, soybeans in the form of tofu — fortified with soy yogurt, tempeh, and calcium sulfate — and all leafy greens, such as collards, spinach, and kale.


Protein-rich foods are a part of every diet, no matter where in the world you live. The following sub-groups included in the protein family are as follows.


Pulses include beans, peas, and lentils. Not only are they a good fiber source, but they also have essential vitamins and minerals. The bonus, they are low in fat. Pulses are a fantastic way to bulk up soup and gravy without adding meat.

Vegetable Protein

There are other sources of vegetable protein, including Quorn, bean curd, and tofu. These are loaded with protein, low in fat, and a suitable replacement for meat in many recipes.


Fish is rich in fatty acids, protein, vitamins, and minerals. A fish, such as salmon, not only has vitamin A and D but is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids support the health of the heart, skin, nails, and brain. 


Eggs are one of the most protein-packed foods on earth. Some might mistakenly believe eggs to be in the dairy group since they’re refrigerated in the dairy section, but eggs come from chickens.

That said, eggs are not only full of protein but also vitamins and minerals. 


Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, there’s nothing better than a juicy piece of steak to sink your teeth into.

As you enjoy your steak, you’re ingesting many nutritious vitamins and minerals. Red meat and milk are the only food source of vitamin B12. Red meat includes beef, lamb, and pork. 


Fats are stored energy and essential to a healthy functioning body.

In addition to supplying energy, fats support cell growth, contribute to healthy skin, protect the body’s organs, provide warmth, and are imperative to hormone production. Fats also enable the body to absorb many vitamins and nutrients (source). 

However, all fats are not created equal. The chemical and physical properties vary among the five types of fat — saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats (source). 

These differences affect the body in different ways. However, it is the bad fats that contribute to the alarming rise in disease and obesity. 

Bad Fats: Saturated and Trans

We are painfully aware of the effects bad fats have on our bodies. Saturated fats and trans fats will raise your LDL cholesterol — the bad cholesterol — levels. Saturated and trans fats are stable, such as a stick of butter.

Good Fats: Poly and Monounsaturated Fats

Yes, there are good fats that contribute to your body’s health. The good fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are liquid, such as vegetable oil. On the flip side of bad fats, good fats lower bad cholesterol, making them beneficial to your health.

Although not listed as a separate category in 2005 or 2011, again, healthy fats and oils are essential for a healthy diet.

What Is Eating Right?

Eating healthy is, without a doubt, confusing. To confuse us further, thousands of health and disease websites exist with additional or different guidelines, such as The Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. 

Your doctor or nutritionist is best suited to steer you in the direction of health.

They will most likely use the USDA guidelines and tailor them to your specific health needs. Unfortunately, the bad fats and sugar that make food taste so good will probably remain on the occasional list.

One of the easiest ways to make healthier choices at the grocery store is to shop the perimeter. That’s where you’ll find fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, and many organic foods. 

When shopping in the middle isles, be a label reader, and know what is in your food. You’ll be surprised at the amount of salt, sugar, unhealthy fats, and preservatives in processed food.

Remember, many of these ingredients are responsible for our current health crisis.


Yoga, Exercise, Fitness, Woman, Health, Strength, Body
Image by lograstudio via Pixabay

Our bodies need exercise to maintain a healthy weight and optimal health. However, you don’t have to run marathons to reap the benefits of moving your body. 

There is no need to end every session in exhaustion. According to an article in WebMD by Arthur Allen, Exercise Addiction in Men, too much exercise may have the opposite effect, so more is not always better (source).

The Mayo Clinic recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (walking). However, if you feel better shining with sweat, 75 minutes of running or other high-intensity activity is recommended (source). 

The intensity and amount of time should be spread out over a week. Also, add some weight training to your routine.

Final Thoughts

There have been many changes to nutrition guidelines over the last 100 years. While many of us have seen them come and go, it is safe to assume that not all recommendations benefit the population. 

Always speak with your family doctor prior to making dietary changes or beginning an exercise program. Always Do your research regarding your questions prior to your doctor’s appointment.  

While your doctor has your best interests in mind, they see hundreds of patients a month. Be proactive; your health is literally in your hands. Now go out and get healthy!