Basic food groups

basic food groups

Made up of five groups

Food can be split into five basic groups, plus drinks. The key is balancing the amount of each in your diet to leave you feeling healthy and full of energy. It’s easy to enjoy eating healthily once you know how.

Fruit & vegetables

What are they?
This food group includes all fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as frozen and canned produce, juices and dried fruit.

Why do we need them?
All research seems to be pointing in the same direction. Eating more fruit and veg will give you big health benefits. Not only for their contribution to your needs for fibre, vitamins and minerals, but in helping to prevent heart disease and cancer. Fibre keeps the digestive system working by providing the bulk for food to move through the system. The vitamins in fruit and veg are easily broken down by cooking, so for maximum nutrition keep cooking times to a minimum - boil briefly until al dente or try steaming, stir-frying or eating them raw as a snack or in salads.

How much should we eat?
The government recommends that we eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. A portion can be one piece of fruit, one glass of fruit juice or one serving of vegetables. And remember, if you smoke, you need more Vitamin C than a non-smoker, so it's even more important to aim for five.

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Cereals & grains

What are they?
All sorts of bread, rice, chapatis, potatoes, yam, sweet potatoes, breakfast cereals, pasta, noodles, oats, couscous, bulgar wheat and polenta. They are known as starchy foods.

Why do we need them?
These are fuel foods. Essentially, they provide us with the energy we need not only for physical activity but also for all our body's day-to-day functions. They do this by supplying us with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can either be simple or complex depending on their basic structure. Sugars are simple carbohydrates whereas starches are complex carbohydrates, a better source of carbohydrate for health. The body converts these carbohydrates into glucose and glycogen. Glucose is used in the blood to deliver immediate energy whereas glycogen is stored in the liver for longer-term, sustained activity. Complex carbohydrates can either be processed, as in white bread, or unprocessed, as in wholemeal bread. While both types provide us with energy, the unprocessed, wholegrain forms have more fibre which helps maintain a healthy digestive system and contains more B vitamins.

How much should we eat?
The government recommends that 50 per cent of our daily calories should come from these carbohydrate sources, so try basing your meals around them.

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Fats & sugars

What are they?
Butter, margarine, oils, cream, sugar, syrups and foods containing fats and sugars such as cakes, biscuits, crisps, sweets, chocolate, puddings, cream, ice cream, mayonnaise and deep-fried foods.

Why do we need them?
Lots of the treats we all love are fatty and sugary foods, but do they have a place in a healthy diet? While it's OK to eat these foods in moderation, it's best to keep them to a minimum. Foods in this group are concentrated sources of calories, so no good if you're watching your weight, and sweets and snacks are packed with the health baddies - fats (mainly saturated), sugar and salt. Fats provide us with essential fatty acids which are vital for proper nerve function. Fish oils are particularly good for this. Limit the amount of fat you use in cooking and on bread and choose those that are rich in polyunsaturates or monounsaturates, such as sunflower or olive oil.

How much should we eat?
Try to limit yourself to 2 portions of sweet, fatty foods a day. If you're overweight, cutting back on these types of foods is one of the easiest ways to cut calories without losing nutrients.

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Meats & protein

What are they?
Red meat such as lamb, beef and pork, poultry such as chicken and turkey, game including grouse, pheasant and duck, fish and eggs, as well as vegetarian alternatives such as nuts, beans, peas, lentils, tofu and other soya-based products.

Why do we need them?
These foods are important sources of protein, iron and zinc. Proteins are the building blocks of our body which maintain healthy tissues and repair any damage. Proteins are made up of amino acids, most importantly the essential amino acids which cannot be made inside the body and so have to come from the food you eat. If you are vegetarian or vegan it is advisable to make sure you eat a variety of different protein sources to ensure that you get a full complement of the essential amino acids.

How much should we eat?
Most people only need to eat moderate amounts to get the protein they need - health professionals recommend that 10-15 per cent of energy in our diet should come from proteins. Government recommendations to prevent cancer advise eating less red meat (no more than one portion a day) and to eat a mixture of foods from this group. Fish is recommended at least twice a week - especially oily fish, such as herring, mackerel or sardines, for their omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

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Drinks

What are they?
Drinks include water, fruit juices, canned drinks, tea, coffee.

Why do we need them?
The human body is mostly water, so drinks are very important to keep our fluid balance correct. Water is the basis for all our body functions and even slight dehydration can have a huge effect on how we feel and how effectively we work. It’s worth knowing that tea and coffee also contain caffeine which acts as a stimulant raising blood pressure and making the heart beat faster. While caffeine can act as a great pick-me-up, in higher doses it can limit vitamin and mineral absorption and actually have a negative effect on our energy levels. We are also advised to keep an eye on the amount of alcohol we drink each day. While drinking alcohol can be a relaxing way to socialise, drinking too much on a regular basis can be damaging so try not to go overboard!

How much do we need?
The government recommends we drink about two litres of water every day. This may seem like a lot but this includes the water in hot drinks, soft drinks and fruit juices. For drinks that contain caffeine, health professionals suggest limiting our intake to 2-3 cups a day. In terms of alcohol, the government recommends no more than 2-3 units a day for women and 3-4 units a day for men. A unit is equivalent to a glass of wine, half a pint of beer or one pub measure of spirits.

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Dairy

What are they?
Dairy products include milk, yoghurt and cheese.

Why do we need them?
The most important constituent of dairy produce is calcium, a mineral that’s essential for healthy teeth and bones. It’s important not only for children to have enough calcium for their teeth and bones to grow, but also for adults to prevent osteoporosis in later life. If you can’t eat dairy products, either because you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, you can get your daily dose of calcium from other sources such as soya milk enriched with calcium, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and dried apricots or figs.

How much should we eat?
The Department of Health recommends that we need 700mg of calcium a day. In food terms this is equivalent to a pint of milk, two small pots of yoghurt or 80g of hard cheese. ups

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