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Understanding the Basics of the Food Pyramid (Part 1)


The food pyramid is one of the most basic sources of information about the essentials of a balanced diet, calorie intake and the food groups one must focus on to maintain health and fitness. From the very first health classes in school, we’ve heard a lot about this pyramid, but not many of us know its practical applications in our lives. Unless we visit a professional dietician, who gives us an ideal diet depending on our body weight and additional requirements, we don’t really have a mapped out diet plan for ourselves ready to give us clues. Well, guess what? The food pyramid is exactly that – a generic diet plan. Taking an average sample from the population it is designed to serve, the pyramid gives us the ideal helpings of each food item, complete with portion sizes and number of calories present in each food item., as a quick reference guide to our nutrition doubts. Health departments all over the world have devised their own food pyramids to serve the needs of their populations based on the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) designed food pyramid. Let’s have a closer look at what this pyramid does:

What is the USDA Food Pyramid?



The food pyramid was recently revised by the USDA into a Food Plate, updating its previously designed pyramid to bring about some significant changes which make interpreting and understanding the pyramid a lot easier for people. The basic task of the pyramid is to provide a comprehensive view of the nutrients people need to include in their diets, food items from each food group which together make for a well balanced meal. According to the USDA, no single food item or food source can provide all essential nutrients in the requisite amounts and anyone who does not take even one food item from the basic food groups must “seek guidance to help ensure that you get all the nutrients you need.” In a USDA press release announcing the release of a redesigned pyramid in 2005, it was said that the pyramid “is part of an overall food guidance system that emphasizes the need for a more individualized approach to improving diet and lifestyle ….The MyPyramid symbol, which is deliberately simple, is meant to encourage consumers to make healthier food choices and to be active every day.”

The new pyramid/plate gives us quantity totals of the basic food groups one must include in a daily meal and one can easily divide the totals in to as many servings as we like, with more servings have a smaller portion size. It gives information about 5 basic food groups: grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and meats and beans.



How Do We Use It?

The food groups given in the pyramid include the following elements:

Grains: wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or other cereal grains and includes products such as bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas and grits. The grain group is divided into

whole grains and refined grains.

Vegetables: five subgroups based on their nutrient content: dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, starchy vegetables, dry beans and peas, and other vegetables.

Fruits: Like vegetables, people should try to eat a variety of fruits. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases.

Dairy: milk, cheese, and yogurt, all of which provide calcium. Fat-free or low-fat products should be chosen.

Meats and Beans: meat, poultry, fish, dry beans or peas, eggs, nuts and seeds. Dry beans and peas, also part of the vegetable group, are included as well. Most fat in the diet should come from fish, nut, or vegetable sources, while solid fats, such as butter, shortening and lard should be limited.

The general recommendations for a 2800 calorie pattern given by the USDA under the new pyramid and portions according to plate are as follows:

Grains: 11 servings daily (5.5 ounces being of whole grain)

Vegetables: 5 servings daily

Fruit: 4 servings daily

Dairy: 2 to 3 servings

Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and beans: 2 to 3 servings

Fats, oils, and sweets: Use sparingly

Recommended diets for all ages begin with the three food groups in the pyramid: grains (primarily whole grains), fruits and vegetables.

The total serving sizes can be divided across meals in one day and consumed, provided that the intake is according to the recommended calorie intake for a particular individual. The USDA has also designed online tracking tools and resources for you to be able to use the pyramid to your advantage by designing a food plan designed specially for you. The tools can be accessed on www.choosemyplate.gov.



Have a look at these portion sizes to determine how much counts for each serving of the respective food groups:

  • One-ounce equivalent or serving of grains: one-half cup cooked pasta, rice, or cereal; one bread slice; or one cup dry cereal

  • One serving of vegetables: one-half cup vegetable juice, one-half cup cut vegetables, or one cup of raw leafy vegetables (such as spinach or salad)

  • One serving of fruit: one-half cup fruit juice, one piece of medium-sized fruit (like an orange, apple, or banana), one-half cup cut fruit, or one-quarter cup dried fruit

  • One cup equivalent of milk: one cup yogurt or milk, 1½ ounces low-fat or fat-free natural cheese, or two ounces processed or packed cheese

  • One ounce equivalent of meat or beans: one-quarter cup cooked beans; one tablespoon peanut butter or other nut butter; one egg; or one ounce cooked meat, chicken, or fish

  • One serving of oil: one teaspoon any vegetable oil, one tablespoon low-fat mayo, or two tablespoons light salad dressing


Here’s a sample food plan prepared using the online tool on the website based on the requirements of a 2600 calorie pattern:

The new pyramid has been formulated with vertical strips  as opposed to the horizontal slabs in the previous versions, to give you a better idea of how much of each food group you need. The pyramid and plate provide excellent guidance about how much an average American must consume in a day, and what is needed to keep fit and healthy. When in doubt about your nutrition patterns, have a look at the pyramid and put your questions to rest.