Santa Clara University

Wellness Center

The Food Guide Pyramid

The Food Pyramid, developed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), is an excellent tool to help you make healthy food choices. The food pyramid can help you choose from a variety of foods so you get the nutrients you need, and the suggested serving sizes can help you control the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar or sodium in your diet. At the top of the pyramid are foods you should eat only sparingly. As the pyramid gets wider toward the bottom, the suggested number of servings increases.


Different foods within the lower five food groups have varying combinations of nutrients, so be sure to choose food combinations that utilize more than one group.

Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta (6-11 servings daily)
The Bread, Cereal, Rice, and Pasta group is at the base of the pyramid because these foods should provide the majority of the energy a person needs each day. These foods are high in complex carbohydrates, which are the body's favorite fuel. After carbohydrates are digested, energy in the form of glucose is circulated in the blood. The liver and muscles also store glucose for later use during physical activity. This food group also provides other important nutrients such as vitamin B-complex (folate), which helps your body form DNA/RNA and red blood cells and aids the body in using proteins. Whole grains add necessary bulk to the digestive tract to aid in elimination of wastes.

1 serving =

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice or pasta
  • 1 ounce cold cereal
  • 1/2 bagel
  • 1/2 English muffin

Vegetables (3-5 servings daily)
Vegetables provide many of the vitamins and minerals needed for good health. Because vegetables contain many different vitamins and minerals, it is important to have a variety of them in your diet. Vegetables also provide fiber to aid in elimination of body wastes. Be sure to scrub vegetables before cooking. Ideally, vegetables should be steamed, microwaved, or eaten raw. Occasional stir-frying is acceptable. Boiling vegetables is OK, but some of the vitamins and minerals will be lost to the cooking water.

1 serving =

  • 1/2 cup chopped vegetables (raw or cooked)
  • 1 cup raw leafy vegetables

b>Fruit (2-4 servings daily)
Fruits are especially good sources of important vitamins like A and C. This food group also adds minerals such as potassium and fiber for proper elimination of wastes from the body.  Be sure to scrub fruits before eating. It is best to eat fruits raw. Avoid peeling or slicing fruits until just before use.

1 serving =

  • 1 medium-sized piece of fruit
  • 1/2 cup cooked or canned fruit
  • 1/2 cup fruit juice

Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese (2-3 servings daily)
This food group is an important source of vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, and protein. Vitamin A is important for healthy eyes, skin, and hair. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and use it for healthy bones and teeth, along with muscle and nerve functions. Protein in the body is made from the building blocks called amino acids. Protein's main functions are to repair and maintain body tissues, produce hemoglobin to carry oxygen to the cells, and produce antibodies and enzymes. Some of the amino acids in protein are produced by the body; others must be obtained in the diet. Excess protein is converted to fat in the body and stored.

1 serving =

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 1/2 to 2 ounces cheese

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Beans, Eggs, and Nuts (2-3 servings daily)
Protein, an important part of your diet, can be found in this food group. Foods in this group also provide vitamin B-complex, which helps your body form DNA/RNA and red blood cells and aids the body in using proteins. And iron helps build strong bones and teeth and support muscle and nerve functions.

1 serving =

  • 2 to 3 ounces lean meat, poultry, or fish
  • 1 egg, 2 Tbs. peanut butter, or 1/2 cup cooked dried beans counts as 1 ounce of lean meat

Fats, Oils, and Sweets
Fats and oils are essential nutrients to maintain body function but should be used sparingly. Fats help the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, K, and beta-carotene. They help slow sugar's release into the bloodstream and are important for the formation of cell membranes.

Aim for fat intake of 30% or less of total daily food intake. Saturated fats (butter, beef fat) should be limited to 10% or less of the fat total. Unsaturated fats (safflower and corn oil) and monounsaturated fats (olive and peanut oil) are healthier choices. That means that if you needs 2,000 calories a day, you can safely have about 60 grams of fat each day in combination with a varied diet.

Sugars, which are simple carbohydrates, are easy to digest and are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream where they provide quick energy. Sugars provide some nutritive value, but they should be eaten sparingly because they are often consumed as excess calories and lead to weight gain.

Reviewed by: Jessica Donze, RD, CDE
Date reviewed: June 2001
Originally reviewed by: Heidi Kecskemethy, RD, CSP

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