Food Pyramid Categories…and what the heck they mean

September 1st, I posted a blog on a book I was reading that teaches a person with any chronic illness how to heal their body using nutrition. You can read that here. As I was doing my morning walk, I got to thinking that a lot of us could use some help understanding health and wellness BEFORE we get to the point of chronic illness, so being a certified nutritionist and a personal trainer who used to own a couple gyms, I decided to post a blog on the components of the food pyramid, which so many people don’t understand. Below is the pyramid broken down for beginners and forgetters.

Disclaimer: Please see your doctor before starting on any nutrition program as this may not be right for you. This diet contains all food groups and does not take into account any allergies, diet restrictions, or vegan/vegetarian choices.

USDA_Food_PyramidThe following nutritional program is based on the USDA food pyramid and in my opinion and experience is the easiest and best way to good health. I have followed this plan strictly three times in my life; once to lower my 200 cholesterol to 140, which I did in six weeks; once to lose 30 pounds of baby weight, which I did over three months; and recently, to control my borderline diabetes. I haven’t had my sugar checked recently, but I feel 100% better and coincidentally lost a quick ten pounds. Yay! We are using the lowest serving numbers in the pyramid diet, as the largest serving numbers should be saved for 230-pound male body builders who work out six times a week. By the end of the blog, you should understand the number of servings you need.

Let’s talk quickly about calories. The easiest way to decide how many calories you need is by the weight you want to be. If you want to be 140 pounds, multiply 140 by 10. You need 1400 calories per day. If you want to be 150 pounds, 1500 calories per day. Easy! This amount should be adjusted up or down by your fitness and exercise level. If you want to be 140 pounds, but are inactive, then 1200 calories would help you lose weight. If you want to gain weight from 140 to 150 and you run marathons, you may need 1800 calories. Adjust your numbers accordingly, understanding that 3500 calories equals roughly one pound (body fat and lean muscle tissue are different numbers, but that’s a good estimate.) If you consume 300 calories less than you need and burn 200 calories a day with exercise, that’s a 500 calorie deficit per day or 3500 calories per week. You should lose just over a pound per week. In contrast, if you overeat by 50 calories per day, you’ll gain six pounds per year. Not hard to do. We’ll discuss calories more at the end of this blog.

Let’s talk about measuring. It’s a pain in the rear to pull out a measuring cup to get a perfect serving of one cup or one tablespoon. Measure things the first couple times, always using the same cup or spoon or plate, then you can eyeball it for the rest of your life. Of course, when you buy new dishes, you’ll have to measure again. My new soup bowls are flippin’ huge!  🙂

Ready to feel better? Ready to have more energy? Ready to learn what’s good and what isn’t? Let’s go!


For the record – the white-faced beauty in the photo is my girl Lucy. Freckles is behind her.

Dairy – The first thing to know is the USDA recommends two-three servings of dairy per day. You need calcium for healthy bones and vitamin D to help absorb the calcium. A serving size is 8 ounces of milk or yogurt. That’s it! (Cheese looks like its included in the dairy category, but it actually has more protein than calcium, so we’ll include it later in the protein section.) If you currently drink whole milk, this week buy 2%, then 1%, then finally skim. You’ll get used to it, I promise, and soon you’ll wonder how you ever drank milk that was so thick. FYI: If you add a pat of butter to one cup of skim milk, you get 1%. Another pat will give you 2%. Two more pats will give you whole milk. Try that little exercise just for fun and see if you can drink it. Eww. Those fats are saturated fats and clog up your arteries and your heart. Also understand that your yogurt should be sugar free, fat free, and fruit free. Bummer! Don’t worry, we’ll fix it later.

Diet Plan – Enjoy one cup of skim milk with breakfast. You do eat breakfast don’t you? If not, just drink the milk. Enjoy one cup of skim milk or yogurt later in the day as an afternoon snack between lunch and dinner.


Fruit – Fruit contains natural sugars and tons of vitamins. They will give you spurts of energy and feed your organs in spectacular ways, aiding in fighting off colds and helping in digestion and elimination. The USDA recommends two-four servings of fruit per day. A serving of fruit is quite simple. In most cases, it’s a piece that you can hold in your hand. Orange, apple, pear, peach, kiwi, plum, etc. In some cases like watermelon, that measurement is not available, so keep in mind that you should still be able to hold the serving in your hand. One cup of watermelon or cantaloupe, 15 grapes, a box of raisins or dried cranberries, 1/2 grapefruit, 1/2 cup of berries, 1/2 cup juice, etc. If you’re not a big fruit eater, try the dried raisins or cranberries on your salad, cooked on top of your meat, or added to your morning cereal. Do not substitute a fruit serving for what’s in the bottom of store-bought yogurt. That’s too much added sugar. If you want fruit in your yogurt, add your own fresh fruit. If fresh fruit is not available, buy frozen fruit. If that’s not available, buy canned fruit that’s packed in water or light syrup. Avoid the extra sugar of heavy syrups whenever possible. Note: if you have blood sugar issues, you should eat your fruit with other foods. When eaten alone, fruit can cause a spike and a quick drop in sugar levels.

Diet Plan – Enjoy two fruits per day. Add one to breakfast and one later as a mid-morning snack. NOTE: Make one of them a citrus (orange, tangerine, grapefruit, pineapple) which covers your proper vitamin C intake for the whole day.

Culmination – You should enjoy a dairy and a fruit with breakfast (or as breakfast, try yogurt with fresh blueberries), a fruit as a mid-morning snack, and a dairy as an afternoon snack.



Veggies are easy! The USDA recommends three-five servings per day. A serving size in one cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked. Bam! You know what veggies are, but I will tell you what they are not. They are NOT potatoes, corn, or beans (except for green beans). Potatoes, corn, and beans contain more starch than fiber and are placed in the grain/starch category which we will go over below. So, your veggies are anything leafy and green, squash, zucchini, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes (which are super high in vitamin C), brussel sprouts, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, carrots, radishes, etc. If you can grow it in your garden, it’s probably a veggie. The easiest way to keep track of your veggies is to eat one for lunch and two for dinner. Slice a tomato to go with your sandwich, add chopped veggies to the top of your pasta, salads are always good. If you’re on the go and simply don’t have time, try a small can of sodium-free V8 juice. You can chug it in one second.

Diet Plan – Enjoy three veggies per day, one with lunch and two with dinner. NOTE: Make one a dark leafy green (kale, broccoli, spinach, romaine, etc.) which covers your proper iron intake for the whole day. Iron is good for the blood.

Culmination – Enjoy a dairy and a fruit with breakfast, a fruit as a morning snack, a veggie with your lunch, a dairy as an afternoon snack, and two veggies with your dinner.


Protein – The USDA food pyramid recommends two-three servings of protein at three ounces per serving. Three ounces of meat is the size of a deck of playing cards. Just like the fruit or vegetable, it’s something you can hold in your hand. Proteins include beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, etc. It also includes all seafood, but with seafood, you can eat double because it’s lower in calories. Eggs are also included in the protein category. One egg equals one ounce, so a three egg omelet is good. The pyramid states cheese is in the dairy category, but they’ve gone back and forth with this for years. Here, we’ll keep cheese in the protein category, but make sure it’s a hard cheese like parmesan. Soft cheeses like American and Feta are super high in fat (that’s why they’re soft). Buy soft cheeses like mozzarella and cheddar that say “part skim.” That has a lower fat content. Don’t get me wrong: Fat is not bad, but we don’t want the saturated fats found in cheeses, we want healthy unsaturated fats, which we will learn about below. Although legumes, peanut butter, nuts and seeds are high in protein, they contain more starches and fats than protein, so are categorized in other places which we’ll discuss below in fats and grains. So, basically your protein is meat, seafood, eggs, and cheese. Make the most lean choices you can when choosing your meats, keeping in mind the farther away from the bone, the less fat. This means a steak is better than ribs, a breast is better than a leg. And processed meats such as sausage, bacon, and lunch meats should go far away. They are filled with sodium and fat. Avoid them if you can.

Diet Plan – Eat one serving of protein at lunch and one at dinner. (You can change your protein serving to breakfast if desired.)

Culmination – Our diet is expanding into eating five meals per day: Breakfast – one dairy and one fruit; Snack – one fruit; Lunch – one protein and one veggie; Snack – one dairy; Dinner – one protein and two veggies.


Fats – There are two kinds of fats: fats that come from animals are saturated fats, and fats that come from plants are unsaturated fats. Your body needs fats, but your heart doesn’t need the saturated kinds. The USDA recommends fat intake be kept to a minimum. You can add up to three unsaturated fats daily, one at each meal. A serving is generally a tablespoon. Fats include oil, grease, butter, nuts, seeds, and strangely, avocado. Watch where your fats come from. If it’s from an animal, find a vegetable substitute. Margarine is better than butter, Canola oil is better than Crisco, sunflower seeds are better than bacon. If you have to eat bacon (which I LOVE), one slice is a fat serving. The best way to use fats is to cook in olive oil, make homemade oil and vinegar dressing for your salad, and add some walnuts, almonds, or peanuts to your breakfast cereal.

Diet Plan – Keep in mind that all fats are optional and may be adding extra calories you don’t need. You may add one serving of fat to each meal.

Culmination – You should be eating five times per day and using the following in your diet: Breakfast – one fruit, one dairy, one fat; Snack – one fruit; Lunch – one protein, one veggie, one fat; Snack – one dairy; Dinner – one protein, two veggies, one fat.


Grains and Starches – These terms are used interchangeably, though technically, starches are grains, fruits, and veggies, and grains are just grains. Whatever, for the sake of this menu, we’ll pretend they are the same thing. This is the hardest category for people to master because it includes fried and sugary things such as cakes, pies, chips, and french fries. Ugh. The most important thing to keep in mind about grains is to ALWAYS choose a whole grain. Those fried and sugary items listed above are NOT whole grains. A whole grain is: whole wheat, barley, rice, corn, rye, etc. Read the label of your bread this week. The first ingredient should include the word “whole.” If your bread contains the words “enriched” or “bleached” then put it back down on the shelf. Enriched means they process the crap out of it until it has no more nutritional value, then add chemical vitamins and minerals back into it. Your body can’t break down those chemicals, so the “enriched, bleached” wheat bread you’re eating is just useless calories. Read the label!! A grain/starch is 80 calories. You can find that information on the label also. Generally, a serving of grain is one slice of bread, english muffin, pita, tortilla, small bagel, or one cup of breakfast cereals, but make sure they are “whole” and have minimal sugar. Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Total, pretty much anything by Kashi, is good. Natural grains such as one cup of oatmeal, grits, brown rice, or whole wheat pasta are perfect. The last part of grains include one potato, one ear of corn, or one cup of beans (not green beans, those are a veggie). Those are all starchy veggies and have been placed in the grain/starch category. Make good whole-grain choices for this category. Don’t waste it on processed chips and french fries. The USDA recommends six-eleven servings per day. The difference there is 480 calories to 880 calories. Yikes! Generally, five or six work for women, and six to ten work for men.

Diet Plan – You should add one-two servings of grain/starch per meal.

Culmination – Your pyramid meals should look like the following: Breakfast – one grain, one dairy, one fruit, one fat; Snack – one fruit; Lunch – two grains, one protein, one veggie, one fat; Snack – one dairy; Dinner – two grains, one protein, two veggies, one fat. This is a 1200 calorie diet. See “Calories” below to adjust your caloric intake by adding grains, veggies, and fruits.

CALORIES – We discussed calories at the top of the blog, but now that you have a better understanding of food groups, let’s break it down further. A dairy serving, a fat serving, and a grain/starch serving are each 80 calories. A fruit is 60 calories. A veggie is 40 calories. Protein is 150 calories. If you are adjusting your calorie intake, keep in mind we never adjust dairy, protein, or fats, because we don’t want to increase cholesterol or saturated  fat levels. Add calories by adding fruit, veggies, and grains. Don’t get lazy and add grains that aren’t healthy.

SNACKS – Besides the regular snacks on this diet, sometimes we just need something sweet, crunchy, or chocolaty. Count these snacks as your grains/starches. A sugar-free fudgecicle has 45 calories. You can have two in place of a grain! – Try your veggies raw and dip them in two tablespoons of hummus (70 calories = a grain). Just as satisfying as any sour cream or ranch dip. – If you find yourself surrounded by birthday cake or Thanksgiving pie, take the smallest piece and trade the calories out for your grains. – Alcohol is also 80 calories per a proper portion and counted as a grain, but use in moderation while getting your diet on track. Nothing can blow a diet faster than a late night alcohol binge. – Popcorn is a great TV snack and is 80 calories per three cups. Lay off the butter, try some popcorn sprinkle mix instead. The store carries great flavors like cheddar and jalapeno.

FREE STUFF – You can use up to three free items per day. These items include fat-free sour cream (perfect for that baked potato), ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, non-dairy coffee flavorings, low-fat mayonnaise, and of course, add herbs to everything. I always have fresh chives in the fridge. Diet sodas are free, but be warned they are very high in sodium, and new studies are coming out daily condemning aspartame. Tea and coffee is always free.

WHITE DEATH – Anything white needs to be used in great moderation. They include: sugar, salt, flour, rice, bread, pasta. Substitutes include: brown sugar or molasses, sea salt, whole wheat flour, brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole wheat pasta.

SHOPPING – Plan your menus in advance so you have everything you need when it’s time to eat. Don’t randomly throw dinner together with whatever is in the fridge. The best way to shop at the grocery store is to go around the outside walls. Everything you need for health is along those walls – fruits, veggies, dairy, meat, read the labels for the best grains, buy healthy fats. Everything in the center aisles needs to be approached with great caution. If it comes in a box, it probably doesn’t have much vitamins or minerals left in it, but it still has plenty of the calories, salts, preservatives, and sugars.

Eat balanced, eat fresh, eat healthy!

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