Mother earth has endowed us with an extensive diversity of edible items. A wide range of cuisines are relished across the globe. There are more than 300 natural foods that are commonly used and each is inherently rich in several nutrients and phytonutrients that we need to include in our dietary regimen for good health and wellbeing. Many of them are therapeutically beneficial and have been used for centuries at household levels, local health centers and have become part and parcel of our traditional systems of medicine. When you dwell deeper into the arena of food groups you will be left muddled and confused as they are vast and diverse.
Food Groups can be understood through nutrition science. Nutrition science can show you the right direction though. The solution lies in teaming up foods and edible items based on their (1) perishability of foods (2) body functions i.e., what are our requirements and (3) nutrients present in the various foods.
Eat, drink and be merry with Perishable foods, strengthen your muscles and move your body as much as you want by virtue of a host of nutrients contained in these foods. Many like curd, cow/soy milk are good sources of bioavailable protein lactose, calcium. Many vegetables are good sources of iron, magnesium, riboflavin, folate, vitamin C, beta carotene and other carotenoids, fiber etc. Some fish may provide omega-3 fatty acids.
Satisfy your hunger with Non-perishable foods as these are your staple foods that are important for your survival and give you satisfaction. They contain good amount of carbohydrates coupled with dietary fiber, protein, and good amounts of vitamins and minerals and if you eat whole grains i.e. whole cereals, millets and pulses you will also get phytochemicals that have health benefits.
Semi-perishable foods like pumpkin, fruits and vegetables, onion, sweet potato, spices like ginger, herbs like mint, parsley etc. are good for health and must be included in the diet. So also, should spices. However, one should go slow with foods like biscuits, jams, fruit-based beverages because they are energy dense but poor in important nutrients particularly fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
(2) Body functions – why do we need these foods
Source: Indian Council of Medical Research- National Institute of Nutrition (2011)
Our body requires about 40 to 50 nutrients. It is not easy to remember the sources of these all. Therefore, for convenience, based on their nutrient composition, foods are placed in five groups and all five of them are mandatory as they contribute to a balanced diet. The concept of balanced diet implies that we have wisely included foods from all five groups in the right amounts or proportions.
The Plate shown in the picture was launched on the 50th Anniversary of Indian Council of Medical Research- National Institute of Nutrition in 2018.
(3) Based on the Nutrients present in Foods
As the plate indicates, half of it should be filled with colorful fruits and vegetables.
Fruits and vegetables are easily accessible and affordable; you may buy them in large quantities. In this case, agriculture and marketing may also play role in enhancing the nutritional status of your family members.
Green leafy vegetables contain chlorophyll which carries magnesium in its core molecule. They are rich sources of vitamin A (beta carotene), riboflavin, Vitamin C, iron, folate, and fiber. Darker colour signifies higher nutrient content. Furthermore, they are alkaline in nature and a big support to maintain the acid-base balance in the body. Simple green chutney made with coriander and mint and lemon juice or amla is a good way to add good dose of nutrients and taste in your daily diet.
Rainbow colours like purple, yellow, green, red, orange in fruits and vegetables adds visual appeal and a therapeutic touch, e.g. purple color in red-purple grapes are important in heart health, cognitive development and reducing harmful effects of free radicals.
Cereals like wheat, rice, millets are our staples from which we make a great variety of our favorite foods such as chapati, bhakri, roti, paratha, khakhra, mathri, rice, pulav, and biryani.
All of us, irrespective of community, creed, colour, religion, region, socio-economic status consume cereal products to satisfy our hunger and most of the activities revolve around getting “do vakt ki roti”. Since cereals and millets are cultivated once a year and have low moisture content, they can be stored and used during rest of year. They come under the category of non-perishable items. However, we must remember that cooked products like bread or chapati or rice are perishable. Some food products that are popular are made from refined flour (maida). Refining, milling, polishing (of rice) strip away valuable nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin E, dietary fiber, and certain minerals. On the other hand, use of pesticides, herbicides and inorganic fertilizers has increased the yield and decreased the number of hungry mouths. These herbicides and fertilizers are not good for health and therefore use of organic foods is now gathering momentum.
Indians are quite fond of consuming milk, butter milk, curd, and other milk products like paneer, khoya, milk powder and Indian sweets like kheer/payasam, basundi, rabri, shrikhand, rasmalai, barfi etc.
Vegans refrain from consuming milk and milk products. If you are vegan, it is worthwhile to remember that that each edible food item from the food group categories is important from the nutrition point of view. Milk is an easy and effective supplier of calcium, good quality protein, vitamin B12, riboflavin, lactose (milk sugar), whey protein and immune boosting immunoglobulin. Breast’s milk is considered the best food for the baby till six months. Of course, the milk lacks iron, fiber, and vitamin C.
Pulses Legumes and Nuts are important food ingredients and traditionally in India we use a wide variety of whole pulses/legumes whole as well as decorticated in dal form. We are all familiar with legumes like udad (black gram), mung (green gram) and mung dal, masur (lentil) and masur dal, rajma (kidney beans), chawli (cowpeas), chana ( chickpeas) which includes desi varieties and kabuli chana, horsegram (kulith), different cultivars of field beans (vaal), soybean etc.
They make great nutritional contributions, providing fiber (in case of whole pulses), protein, carbohydrate, B vitamins, iron, copper, magnesium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorous. In fact, for vegetarians and vegans, they are the major and most important sources of protein. Legumes are naturally low in fat, are practically free of saturated fat, and because they are plant foods, they are free of cholesterol as well. Compared to cereals, they give good satiety and are good for incorporating into weight management regimes. Legumes have a lower glycemic index than cereals and millets.
Nuts are excellent sources of protein and fiber and are good sources of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E and minerals. Although their fat content is high, they are sources of ‘healthy’ fats’ that are good for health and nuts like walnut contain omega-3 fatty acid. They are ‘heart healthy’. Nuts that you can include in your diet include almonds, cashew nuts, walnuts, peanuts, charoli/chironji, pistachios, hazelnuts, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, pecans and so on.
They improve cholesterol profiles. The unsaturated fat in nuts helps to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Nuts aid in preventing erratic heart rhythms also known as arrhythmia, reduce blood clotting, relax blood vessels thus helping blood to flow better and lowering blood pressure, help to control blood glucose, and contribute to satiety. They have a lower glycemic index than cereals because they have much lower carbs content.
If you truly wish to obtain health benefits of nuts, they should be eaten whole with skin and as is (raw) without salt and flavouring and certainly not in the form of chikki, or katri or other sweet preparations.
Fats and oils play a crucial role in our diet. They are used to enhance taste and flavor of the food and make the food more appetizing. They provide more calories as compared to foods containing carbohydrates or protein per gram. Since excessive intake of fat and bad choice of fat is harmful for the body, hence being judicious in selection of food sources is important.
The Indian council of Medical Research-National Institute of Nutrition recommends that a sedentary person should take about 20-30 grams a day. There are of two types of fats in our diets: Visible fat and invisible fat. Visible fat is the one you can see like butter, ghee, hydrogenated fat, vegetable oils. Invisible fat that is present in several food items but it is not seen and not removable (until and unless it is removed by technological processes). Grains, nuts, and seeds contain invisible fat in enough amounts and these are generally good fats as they provide some amount of omega-3: omega – 6 fatty acids. Green leafy vegetables, even curry patta, pulses like whole black urad, rajmah, methi seeds, have good amounts of omega -3. Include them in your daily diet. Visible fat is used in cooking of food and in preparation of snacks and confectionery. After prolonged cooking at high temperature the same fat is very harmful to your health.
Sweets: The tip of our tongue has numerous taste buds that are sensitive to sweet taste; Sugar is a simple carbohydrate and provides only calories and nothing else (we can say it gives ‘empty calories’ i.e. empty of other important nutrients); one tea spoon (5 grams) gives 20 kcal. So, if I have one cup of green tea with ½ teaspoon of sugar that will give me only 10 kcal and lots of antioxidants. Problems arise from the amount of sugar added in cold drinks and if soft drinks like cola beverages are consumed, several teaspoons of sugar are taken at a time.
The World Health Organization recommends that only 5% of our total energy intake should come from added sugar. Many persons consume sweets while they do not realize how much they are consuming. We don’t realize the extreme sweetness when consuming cold food products, like ice cream. Over and above this, you should be aware that manufacturers do not always use sucrose but add high fructose corn syrup which disrupts the body’s metabolism. Consumption of high fructose corn syrup containing foods has been found to be associated with weight gain, obesity and heart problems, high uric acid, fatty liver, high triglycerides, etc.
It may be worthwhile to use, dates, raisins, jaggery, maple syrup, honey in limited amounts as sweeteners. If you or your family find it difficult to shun the habit of eating sweets after meals, then use mukhwas or preparations using natural form of sugar rather white sugar or table sugar. Start by trying to reduce the sugar you add to tea/coffee and slowly reduce your intake of sweets gradually.
To sum up, the table given here provides information about the foods and nutrients included in each food group. Included also is the diagram i.e. the pyramid that indicates which foods need to be emphasized and which foods should be included sparingly in our diets.
|Foods included in each group
|Nutrient supply by each food group
|Cereals, Millets and Pulses
|Cereals and Millets
|Wheat, rice, bajra, jowar, maize, corn, ragi, puffed rice, poha
|Energy, complex carbohydrates, protein, iron, thiamine, niacin, fiber
|Channa, Urad, Moong, arhar (tur), massor, lobia (rongi or chowli) (with or without skin), peas, rajma, soybeans, dry beans, sprouts
|Energy, protein, iron, calcium, B-vitamins invisible fat, fiber
|Vegetables and Fruits
|Roots and tubers
|Onion, potato, yam, sweet potato, garlic
|Starch, fiber, vitamins and minerals
|Green leafy vegetables
|Amaranth, spinach, drumstick leaves, coriander leaves, fenugreek leaves etc
|vitamin A, invisible fats, riboflavin, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, iron, fiber
|Carrots, brinjal, lady finger, pumpkin, gourds, beans, capsicum, cauliflower
|Invisible fats, riboflavin, folic acid, calcium, iron, fiber
|Mango, guava, papaya, orange, sweet lime, water melon
|Vitamin A, B, C and fiber, carbohydrates
|Milk and Animal foods
|Milk– Milk, curd, skimmed milk, cheese, paneer, khoa
|Protein, fat, vitamin riboflavin, calcium
|Meat, fish, egg
|Protein, fat, essential fatty acids, vitamin A, D and E and minerals
|Fats and oils, nuts, and oil seeds
|Fats and oils
|Butter, ghee, hydrogenated fat (vanaspati), vegetable oils
Nuts like almonds, cashew nuts, figs, dates, pistachio,
|Energy, fat, essential fatty acids
Essential fatty acids, oils, vitamins, and minerals
|Sugar, Jaggery, Honey
|Sugar, jaggery, honey
|Sugar, jaggery, honey
Jams, jellies, soft drinks
|Energy, simple carbohydrates
Dietary Guidelines for Indians, A manual (2011) 2nd edition National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, India
As you can see using food groups we can select appropriate food items that offer variety in taste and texture and thus help to design a balanced diet. Knowledge about food groups is important to assess anyone’s diet and identify any short comings, as well as they can be used for nutrition counselling.