The Food Groups

A lifestyle is all-encompassing and includes the six domains of health: intellectual, physical, spiritual, social, emotional and environmental. This section is going to focus solely on physical health, specifically macro- and micro-nutrients. Future books in Under One Hour’s Nutrition Series will tap into the other domains of health.

Macronutrients are large nutrients, not only in physical structure, but in terms of the quantity that is needed for health and vitality. This group includes protein, carbohydrates, and fat. A well-balanced diet does not necessarily mean that you consume each in equal proportions; depending on your health background, fitness goals and lifestyle, the percentage of calories from each of these groups can vary. The most effective way to create measurable nutrition goals is to use grams. However, due to the complex nature of this process, the MyPlate Method is used, as pictured below (5).

This style of macronutrient breakdown highlights the food groups macronutrients belong to. Focusing on food groups is a much more sustainable way to reach your health goals; you don’t eat beta-carotene, you eat carrots which have beta-carotene. Most foods are made up of more than one type of macronutrient and several (hundred+) micronutrients.

The graphic below represents the five food groups.

Fruits and vegetables should make up half the plate, followed by grains (at least half of which should be whole) and protein. Note the “Dairy” icon in the top right. This icon actually represents calcium-rich foods that are typically lacking in the American diet and includes foods like fortified plant milks, dark green leafy vegetables, and some beans, nuts and seeds. Remember, these are examples and can vary based on individual needs so it is important to schedule an appointment with a dietitian if you would like more personal data.





Protein is the building block of muscle and is made up of amino acids. These amino acids clump together to form large protein molecules that our bodies use for many things like building and repairing tissue and replicating DNA. During exercise, especially vigorous types like weight lifting, micro tears are made in the muscle fibers. After the exercise is over, those tears need to be rebuilt, resulting in a stronger muscle. It is important to replenish 30 minutes

to an hour after exercise with a meal that includes  protein so your body can repair any damage and eventually make the muscle stronger or bigger (which depends on the type food you eat, type of exercise you do and how frequently you do it). If the body is not used to a certain type of exercise and/or proper measures are not taken, muscles can become sore and stiff.

What type of protein is best? In a simple answer, there is not one single best type of protein. Animal protein is the most common protein source for Americans, but good healthy protein can be found in many other foods including whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, and green leafy vegetables. The only food group that is not high in protein is fruit, which will be discussed further in the Fruits and Vegetables Part of this section.

A complete protein contains all nine of the essential amino acids. Animal proteins are a complete source, as are some plant-based sources like soy, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, hempseed, chia and spirulina. However, most plant-based sources of protein do not contain all the essential amino acids our bodies need to thrive in one single food. This is why it is important to enjoy a variety of protein-rich foods. More information on the nine essential amino acids is described in the chart below. These amino acids are considered essential because the body does not produce them, while non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body.

Whether you eat a plant-based diet or not, you can still meet and exceed all your protein needs by following the chart below. Simply choose a variety of protein sources throughout the week, and you will be set!

The amount of protein one requires can vary greatly from person to person. Consuming roughly 10-20% of your total calories is a good start for the average person, but if you have a medical condition or are an athlete, it is important to work with a dietitian to make sure your needs are being met.

Note: Contrary to popular belief, complementary proteins do not need to be eaten at the same meal or even in the same day in order to be beneficial.

Whether cooked from dry, canned, fresh or frozen sources, all of the foods mentioned above can be part of a healthy lifestyle.





Carbohydrates (also known as “carbs”) have gotten some bad publicity over the last decade. Some people say carbs are what

causes diabetes and obesity, while others say they are the foundation of a healthy plant-based diet. The reason for this confusion is that research has been taken out of context, as can be the case in broadly interpreted studies or poorly formed studies. As mentioned previously, all bodies are different and may require different ratios of food groups for optimal health. When a person is diagnosed with an illness, their diet may have to change to accommodate changes from metabolism, medication, and the nature of the disease. For example, research has shown that monitoring carbohydrate intake in diabetics can help stabilize blood sugar. Once carbs are monitored, diabetics tend to have an easier time getting to a healthy weight and managing their blood sugar. This does not mean that everyone needs to count carbs in order to lose weight; it simply means if you have blood sugar issues, you should talk with a dietitian and your doctor to learn how to manage it.

Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates are not used structurally in the body; instead, they are used solely for fuel. Like protein, carbohydrates vary in terms of quality. In the most basic sense, the closer the carbohydrate resembles the plant it comes from, the healthier it will be. For example, eating whole fruit is much better for your body than drinking fruit juice since all of the fiber is removed during juicing, making the sugars more easily absorbed.

This same guideline applies to all types of carbohydrates including vegetables, grains, and beans. It is ok to take shortcuts, like buying canned beans or par-boiled brown rice, but remember that there is no shortcut to health. Health is achieved by making small consistent changes that add up over time.

Words to look for when buying grain-based foods:

“Refined”- This term refers to grain production, specifically when nothing but the endosperm is left. The endosperm is what gives refined products that white color, as the bran and germ are the darker and nutrient-rich parts of the grain.

“Whole”- Look for this word when searching for healthy grains. The term “whole”

refers to the processing of the grain and means that the germ and bran (where all of the healthy fats and proteins are held in the seed…yes, grains are seeds!) are still attached to the endosperm. See the image below.

“-ose”- Any time you see a word end with “-ose,” it is a form of sugar. Sugar is not inherently bad for you, as some of the earth’s healthiest foods (like sweet potatoes,

bananas, and blueberries) are full of the delicious sweet stuff! The problem lies in the ingredient list. Whole healthy foods typically do not come in packages (with the exception of whole grains and dried beans), but sometimes cereal is more convenient that steel-cut oats. In situations like this, it is important to read not only the nutrition facts panel, but the ingredient list as well. Be sure to look for a short ingredient list with words you can pronounce, and keep a keen eye for those words that end in “-ose” as the sum of these will tell you how much sugar is actually in a serving.

“Enriched”- Enriched sounds like a good thing, and it can be, but more often than not this label is attached to a refined grain that has had some of its vitamins and minerals added back. You will find this a lot in breads and cereals.

“Wheat” or “Whole Wheat/Grain”- Finally, this term can be tricky as many people associate “wheat” with “whole wheat” or “whole grain”. Unless gluten free or otherwise specified, all bread is made with wheat. The difference is the term “whole”

attached to the term “wheat.” “Wheat” on its own basically means refined white bread. Even if the bread looks brown, do not be fooled! Manufacturers are smart and may add colorings to their bread to make it look like a whole grain product! The real test is in the feel of the bread. If it feels dense or heavy for its size, it is more than likely whole grain. If it feels light, soft and squishy, it is more than likely a refined product. Either way, check the ingredient list and look for the word “whole” in front of “wheat” or “grain” to be sure the product you are buying is actually “whole”.

If you begin to feel confused or overwhelmed, look at Section 6 for more detailed information.



The interesting part about dietary fat is how its value has changed throughout history. In the mid-1900s, fat was favored. Then, in the 1980s and 90s, fat was feared. Now we have finally come to a balance and understand that there are healthy fats, unhealthy fats and a time and place for both. Much like carbohydrates, fats are a necessary part of a healthy diet and depending on family history and medical conditions, fat intake can vary quite drastically from one individual to another.



Depending on the type of fat you consume, your body can be helped or hindered. The two types of fats that you should pay attention to the most are trans- and saturated fats (6). There has been recent research that shows saturated fat as having less of an impact on heart disease risk as once previously thought. However, research shows that when polyunsaturated fats (described further in the next part) replace saturated fats, heart disease risk is reduced.

Saturated fats are found in some quantity in all high fat foods, but are higher in some foods than in others. Animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy, have a high percentage of saturated fats. The simplest way to know if a high fat food contains a high percentage of saturated fats is that the fat will be solid at room temperature (think butter or grease from cooking meat).

Other sources of saturated fats include tropical oils like coconut and palm. Tropical oils are unique in the sense that the body processes these saturated fats differently. Current research is inconclusive on whether or not tropical fats are “healthy.” However, if

you are eating a diet high in low fat plant foods, unrefined, fresh coconut can be a healthy addition.



Other types of fat, like those found in nuts, seeds, and avocados, are crucial to health. The body needs fat in order to produce hormones, cushion vital organs, produce hormones and maintain your core body temperature. These healthy fats include poly- and mono-unsaturated fats as well as Omega-3 fatty acids.

These unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats due mostly to their chemical structure. The bonds that hold these fats together are loose, making them fluid at room temperature. A simple way to remember why unsaturated fats are healthy is due to their liquid nature. If a fat is liquid at room temperature, it will also be liquid inside your body. A solid fat will not be solid inside your body, but can contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries.

A healthy rage of fat intake can be anywhere from 10% up to 40% of total calorie intake. Since I do not recommend counting calories, these percentages would look like ¼ to 1 ¼ avocadoes or ½ to 1 ½ ounces of unsalted nuts daily.



While fruits and vegetables can fall into at least one of the three categories above, there are micronutrients found in all plants foods, which make them extra special and nutritious. According to

the World Health Organization, a micronutrient is called such because it is “needed in only miniscule amounts…they enable the body to produce enzymes, hormones and other substances essential for proper growth and development.” Micronutrients, however, can go by many names including phytochemicals, phytonutrients, polyphenols, antioxidants, etc. The important thing about plant compounds is that they help the plant fight disease and pests (which is one of the reasons plants are beneficial to the human body as well!).

Research has shown that micronutrients are more beneficial when consumed from a whole food. One example you may be familiar with is vitamin C. This vitamin is commonly consumed during the onset of a cold; however, we now know that vitamin C

supplements do not cure colds but instead help prevent colds. By consuming nutrient-rich foods that happen to also be high in vitamin C (like greens, citrus, and berries), the risk of getting sick is reduced. Research is still being conducted on phytochemicals as they are a fairly recent discovery; scientists only started identifying them in the 1980s.

The chart below lists common phytochemicals as well as what they do and where to find them.




Taking all of the above information, here is what a well-balanced meal may look like:

Restaurant meal: Veggie burger with a side of steamed veggies or salad.

Meal cooked at home: Burrito Bowl with brown rice, black beans, avocado, tomatoes, shredded lettuce and lime juice.

Bringing lunch to work/school: Use leftovers from a home-cooked or restaurant meal. If there are no leftovers, a quick and easy solution could be packing a potato and a mason jar full of frozen mixed veggies. Once at work, simply microwave the potato and top with the now-thawed veggies! If you are really lucky, your work or school might carry condiments like ketchup (with no corn syrup), mustard, vegan mayo, hot sauce, and/or pepper!

Note: I do not recommend using the microwave all the time, but it can be a better option than going through fast food…