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5 Major Food Groups

author image Carly Schuna
Carly Schuna is a Wisconsin-based professional writer, editor and copy editor/proofreader. She has worked with hundreds of pieces of fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, feature stories and corporate content. Her expertise on food, cooking, nutrition and fitness information comes from years of in-depth study on those and other health topics.
5 Major Food Groups
A buffet table with the five major food groups. Photo Credit: Heavenlyphoto/iStock/Getty Images

There’s a lot of disagreement among nutritionists as to how many food groups there should be and how the groups should be organized. Medical professionals, dietitians and nutritionists do agree, however, that eating a balanced diet and a variety of foods is the best way to get essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients. One way to plan your diet around these components is to use the model of four major food groups.

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Milk and milk-based products made up one of the USDA’s “Basic 4” food groups, and it was recommended that healthy adults get two full servings of food from this group every day. Products in the dairy group include milk, yogurt, cheese and kefir. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, milk and milk products still make up a full category in a more modern version of the food plate, which lists five food groups. The organization recommends getting servings from this group by using low-fat milk or yogurt, buttermilk and reduced-fat cheese.


The second food group in the “Basic 4” model contained meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and dried beans and peas. All of these foods are significant sources of protein, which was the impetus behind the USDA choosing to combine them into one group. In a model of the “New 4 Food Groups” proposed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, this food group has been condensed into a “legume” group that includes beans, peas, lentils, soy products and texturized vegetable protein. The CDC also categorizes nuts, seeds and legumes in its own current group and separates meat, fish and poultry as another group. Eggs are considered part of the protein group on the current USDA My Plate website.

Fruits and Vegetables

The USDA recommended four daily servings from this group, which combined fruits and vegetables. Fresh, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits are included in the group, and so are servings of 100-percent fruit or vegetable juice. Most current models group these two categories separately and recommend more servings of each, including the USDA's MyPlate, the CDC’s listing of groups and the PCRM’s proposal of the “New Four Food Groups.”


Grains was the last category in the 1956 “Basic 4” food-group selection. The USDA recommended four daily servings, and food products in the group included cereals, rice, pasta and bread. Grains remain a current group in revised models of USDA's My Plate, but they have been updated to stress the importance of whole grains over refined grain products. The CDC recommends that consumers focus on whole-grain breads, pastas and cereal and choose foods such as brown rice, quinoa and bulgur over refined white rice or refined noodles.

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