Food groups and recommended serving sizes

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The Food and Nutrition Guideline Statements refer to the four food groups:
1.       vegetables and fruit
2.       breads and cereals
3.       milk and milk products
4.      lean meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.*

As outlined in more detail below, each of the four food groups is important for different reasons and each provides a range of essential nutrients. Eating a variety of foods in the recommended amounts from each of the four food groups should provide sufficient energy and nutrients for most healthy children and young people (see sample meal plans in Appendix 5).

The Ministry of Health developed standard serving sizes for use when providing advice about the amount of food to eat from each food group to meet energy and nutrient requirements. Standard serving sizes were developed as part of the report Food for Health (Department of Health 1991). These serving sizes were intended to reflect usual serving sizes based on the 1989 Life in New Zealand Survey, and to be convenient in terms of the forms of food that are readily available (eg, whole piece of fruit, pottle of yoghurt). The standard serving sizes are used for all population groups covered by the Food and Nutrition Guidelines series, regardless of age or nutrient requirements, but the number of servings varies.

The difference between recommended serving size and portion size

Although standard serving sizes are designed to provide consistent advice on food and nutrition, in some instances the standard serving size seems large for younger children. For example, one standard serving of milk and milk products is a 250 ml glass of milk, a 150 g pottle of yoghurt, or two slices (40 g) of cheese. However, the total number of servings can be consumed in smaller portions during the day.

A portion size refers to the amount of food offered at a single eating occasion. For example, although it is recommended that children consume two standard servings of milk and milk products each day, they can meet this requirement by consuming the following portions: half a glass of milk with breakfast cereal, 75 g yoghurt as a morning snack, 20 g of cheese with lunch, and half a glass of milk with dinner.

Vegetables and fruit

Vegetables and fruit provide energy, carbohydrate, dietary fibre, vitamins (including vitamin A, vitamin C and folate) and minerals (including potassium and magnesium). Starchy root vegetables (eg, potatoes, kūmara and taro) are important sources of carbohydrate in the New Zealand diet. In addition to providing many nutrients, most vegetables and fruit are low in energy and contribute to satiety (feeling of abdominal fullness after eating), so may help people maintain a healthy weight. High intakes of vegetables and fruit have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease,
type 2 diabetes and many cancers.

Plant foods such as vegetables and fruit contain a wide range of different compounds that promote good health. Some of these compounds have already been identified (eg, dietary fibre, phytochemicals) and others are as yet unknown. It is the synergistic effect of this mixture of protective compounds that provides the benefit. For this reason, eating a wide range of whole or minimally processed vegetables and fruit is the best method for gaining optimal nutrient intake and reducing the risk of chronic disease.

To obtain a wide range of nutrients it is important to eat many different types of vegetables and fruit every day. Colour is a good guide to ensuring variety with vegetables and fruit, which are often classified as green (eg, broccoli, spinach, kiwifruit), yellow/orange (eg, carrots, pumpkin, mandarins), red (eg, tomatoes, red peppers, strawberries), blue/ purple (eg, beetroot, eggplant, plums) or brown/white (eg, onions, potatoes, bananas). These colours also indicate high levels of protective compounds in vegetables and fruit. Useful resources on vegetables and fruit are available on the 5+ A Day website,

Fresh, frozen or canned vegetables and fruit are all usually good dietary options. Commercially frozen vegetables and fruit are usually picked at their prime and ‘snap frozen’ so they should retain many of their nutrients. Canned vegetables and fruit are also picked at their prime and retain many nutrients, although beware of added sugar and salt. Juiced vegetables and juiced or dried fruit contain fewer beneficial compounds than whole foods. Juiced or dried fruit are high in sugar. If vegetable or fruit juice or dried fruit is consumed, it contributes up to one serving only of the total recommended number of servings for this food group so that additional servings of fresh, frozen or canned vegetables and fruit are still required to meet recommendations.

See Table 1 for more information on recommended intakes of vegetables and fruit, including descriptions of serving sizes.

Breads and cereals

The breads and cereals food group includes all breads, cereals, rice, pasta and foods made from grain. Breads and cereals provide energy, carbohydrate, dietary fibre (especially wholegrains), protein and B vitamins (except B12). Breads and cereals are also an important source of energy for children and young people.

What are ‘wholegrains’?

There is no widely accepted definition of the term wholegrain (Cummings and Stephen 2007). It generally means the entire grain seed or kernel is intact and so includes the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran and germ provide dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals; the endosperm provides carbohydrate and some protein. A kernel that has been cracked, crushed, flaked or milled can only be described as wholegrain if it retains the same relative proportions of bran, germ and endosperm found in the original grain. Wholegrain foods include the following foods and products: whole wheat, whole-wheat flour, wheat flakes, bulgur wheat, whole and rolled oats, oatmeal, oat flakes, brown rice, whole rye and rye flour, whole barley and popcorn (Cummings and Stephen 2007). Note that ‘wholegrain’ claims on food labels are currently unregulated and often misleading. Refined grains have had most or all of the bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm, so they provide substantially fewer nutrients and less fibre. Refined cereals include white bread, cakes, muffins, sweet or savoury biscuits, pasta, white rice and refined grain breakfast cereals.

Aim to increase the proportion of breads and cereals that are wholegrain as children get older. Note that older children and young people, particularly those who are highly active, will need more servings of breads and cereals to meet their energy requirements.

See Table 1 for more information on recommended intakes of breads and cereals, including descriptions of serving sizes.

Milk and milk products

Milk and milk products provide energy, protein, fats (mostly saturated), vitamins (riboflavin, B12, A) and minerals (calcium, iodine, phosphorus, zinc). They are particularly important for children and young people to ensure optimal bone health. Reduced or low- fat milk and milk products are the best choices because these foods include less saturated fat, and often more protein and calcium than high-fat alternatives.

All types of milk and milk products (eg, yoghurt, cheese) from all animal sources (eg, cow, goat) are included in this food group. Milk alternatives, such as soy and rice milk fortified with calcium and other nutrients, also belong to this food group. Some plant milks contain significantly lower levels of nutrients (eg, energy, protein) than cow’s milk so should not be considered equivalent (see section 5.4: Sources of fluid in the diet). Breast milk is included for children being breastfed.

See Table 1 for more information on recommended intakes of milk and milk products, including descriptions of serving sizes.

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