Eating According to the Food Pyramid

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published the first food pyramid in 1992, with food groups drawn as horizontal layers from top to bottom. The pyramid was designed to help Americans understand which food groups to focus on for better health. But carbohydrates made up the largest group, and people were encouraged to eat more carbs than other foods. The new food pyramid has vertical stripes of different thicknesses to indicate the relative importance of each food group. The USDA web site has a nutrition tool that allows you to enter your age, sex, and activity level to get the amount you need from each group. Charts at also show you serving sizes for meeting these goals.

Grains – On the USDA food pyramid, grains are now measured in 1-ounce equivalent servings, and at least half of your allotment needs to be from whole grains. Examples of a 1-ounce equivalent are one slice of whole-wheat bread, a half-cup of cooked brown rice or pasta, and 1 cup of whole-grain breakfast cereal. Refined grain products, like white bread and regular pasta, are measured the same way. In terms of the number of servings, the new food pyramid suggests that girls (ages 9 to 18) and women need between four and six 1-ounce equivalents a day, men and boys (ages 9 to 18) between six and eight, and kids age 8 and younger, three to five. If you have a cup of cereal at breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, and a cup of rice as a side dish with dinner, you’ll have eaten five1-ounce equivalents.

Vegetables – A recent study shows that most people still don’t eat the amount of vegetables they need. The food pyramid now gives recommendations in total cups of vegetables per day — you can spread out the amount you need any way you want across your meals and snacks. Totals are between 2 and 2.5 cups per day for women and girls over the age of 9, 2.5 to 3 cups for men and boys 9 years old and up, and 1 to 1.5 cups for children aged 2 to 8 years old. Children especially should focus on veggies like broccoli and spinach — non-starchy varieties. Twelve baby carrots, a large tomato, and two stalks of celery are each equivalent to 1 cup of veggies. Lettuce is measured differently: Each cup counts as just a half-cup of your vegetable total.

Fruits – Believe it or not, there’s a limit to the amount of fruit you should eat. Why? For adults, it’s because of the calories. Fruits are double the calories of vegetables. According to USDA, the total daily recommended amounts for fruits are for 1 to 1.5 cups for children ages 2 to 8 years, 1.5 cups for most women and girls over 9 years old, and 2 cups for men and boys over age 9. Fruit provides great nutrients and fiber, but a lot of fiber could upset a young child’s intestinal tract, explaining the reason for the smaller recommended amount. Examples equivalent to 1 cup of fruit are a large banana, peach, or orange; 32 grapes or 8 big strawberries; or a small apple.

Milk and Dairy – According to the food pyramid, children under the age of 8 need 2 cups of milk per day; for everyone else, 3 cups is the recommendation. Girls are notorious for not drinking milk. And they also aren’t as active as teenage boys, who play more impact sports — activities that prompt bone growth. Active youngsters need close to 4 cups of dairy products daily. “There are a lot of people who don’t drink milk at all. They are lacking calcium and vitamin D. Osteoporosis is a disease you don’t see until later in life, but it’s linked to lack of calcium and vitamin D early in life. Dairy options equal to 1 cup of milk are 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, 1 cup of yogurt, and 1 cup of pudding made with milk — keep in mind that some of these choices have more calories than low-fat or fat-free milk.

Meat and BeansAlthough this category is called “meat and beans” on the pyramid, it actually includes meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. For most people, getting enough protein isn’t usually a problem — the goal is getting lean protein without saturated fat and extra calories. For instance an 8-ounce T-bone steak weighs in at 600 calories. On the food pyramid, the key proteins listed in the meat and beans group are measured in ounce equivalents. Most people need just 5 to 6.5 ounce equivalents a day — 2 ounces of sliced chicken in a salad or on a sandwich for lunch and a 4-ounce fish filet at dinner will do it. Children under 8 years of age need even less, between 2 and 4 ounces a day. Keep in mind that the protein in dairy helps contribute to your protein needs.

Beans – The food pyramid designers appreciate that not everyone eats meat. The Pyramid does recognize vegans and vegetarians. It uses meat equivalents. On the pyramid beans fill two roles: as protein sources and as vegetables. They are measured as ounce equivalents. One-quarter cup of any type of cooked beans or dry peas is a 1-ounce equivalent. That means if you eat a main dish of a cup of lentils or of black beans, for instance, you’ve had 4-ounce equivalents, or almost a full day’s requirement. Note that soy is included as well: 2 ounces or a quarter-cup of tofu is also considered one-ounce equivalent. Tempeh, soybeans, and hummus count too.

Fish – Fish is also in the meat and beans group in the food pyramid. While you should avoid fish with high mercury levels such as swordfish and light tuna, make other fish with heart-healthy fats staples of your diet. It comes back to that message of variety — don’t just eat red meat as your source of protein. And too much chicken can get boring. Every ounce of fish counts one for one toward your daily ounce-equivalent protein needs — a 3-ounce can of tuna is 3-ounce equivalents, a 6-ounce salmon steak is 6-ounce equivalents, and so on.

Nuts – Nuts and seeds belong to the meat and beans group, too. One-ounce equivalents include 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, 2 tablespoons of hummus, and a half-ounce of nuts or seeds. Remember that nuts are calorie-dense — a half-ounce is just seven walnut halves or a dozen almonds. Because they contain fat, nuts also can count toward the fats and oil category. They are a great source of vitamin E and are a heart-healthy type of fat — oils from nuts and other plant sources do not contain cholesterol.