Food Groups

This fact sheet aims to provide information on food groups and requirements throughout adult life.

What are the main food groups?

Government, health and food agencies across the UK have provided guidance to promote healthy eating; this comes in the form of the “Eatwell” Guide, produced in 2016. The guide has 5 main food groups: 1. Fruit and vegetables. 2. Starchy carbohydrates: potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates. 3. Proteins: beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins. 4. Dairy and alternatives. 5. Oil and spreads.

The NHS have an informative interactive “Eatwell Guide”; this factsheet is based on the “Eatwell Guide”.

Fruit and Vegetables

Overcooking vegetables can reduce available nutrients, so cook lightly; steaming is better than boiling. Fresh, tinned, frozen, and dried forms of fruits and vegetables all count; ensure tinned foods are in natural juice and/or have no added salt and sugar.

Guidance is to eat a minimum of 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables per day. Fruit and vegetables are a rich source for most key nutrients required for health, so should form the basis for most meals. It is recommended that fruit and vegetables are consumed whole rather than as juice, purées or smoothies, as whole fruit and vegetables contain essential fibre; also, processing fruit and vegetables breaks down cells releasing sugars (particularly from fruit), which act as free sugars, so are less healthy.

Starchy carbohydrates

Include portions from this food group at each meal. Starchy carbohydrates can prevent hunger between meals
and are a good source of energy and key nutrients.

This food group includes potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, and other starchy carbohydrates.
Guidance is to have 5-8 portions from this food group per day; the best choices are wholegrain and higher fibre foods with low amounts of added fat, salt, and sugar.


Animal protein sources should be lean and
of good quality; processed meats such as
bacon, ham and sausages should be

Proteins include animal and plant proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses, nuts and other proteins e.g. tofu, Quorn. Guidance is to have 2-3 portions of protein per day. Eat at least 280g of fish per week, with at least 140g of oily fish (e.g. salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines) and another 140g of white fish.

Dairy and alternatives

Dairy products are animal-based products which include milk, cheese, and yoghurt. There are plant alternatives such as soya milk. Guidance is to eat 2-3 portions of dairy per day.
Dairy products are a great source of nutrients, particularly calcium. Aim for lower fat and lower sugar products where possible, such as skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, plain low-fat yoghurt, lower fat cheeses e.g. cottage cheese. Where using plant alternatives, choose those that are fortified with calcium and are unsweetened.

Oils and spreads

Fats are essential for good health however, they are high in energy and are unhealthy in large amounts, so should be limited. Saturated fats (mainly from animal products) should be minimised and healthier, unsaturated fats should be preferred, such as vegetable oils and spreads. The consumption of Omega-3 unsaturated fats from oily fish or nuts and seeds (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, linseeds, and rapeseed oil) is particularly encouraged.

Foods high in sugar, fat and/or salt

Foods high in sugar, fat and/or salt such as crisps, chocolate, cakes, biscuits, sweets, ice-cream, and some sauces, are nutrient poor, high in energy, and unnecessary for good health. Guidance is to only eat these foods in small amounts and infrequently.

If a snack is required, there are many healthy options to choose from e.g. fruit, a handful of nuts, raw vegetables, healthy dips such as hummus or guacamole, low fat/sugar yoghurt.


The recommended amount of water per day is 2L with a minimum of 1.7L of water per day for the
elderly. This assumes that there is no excess loss of water through e.g. profuse sweating, diarrhoea,
vomiting, severe blood loss, high fever. The amount required by individuals will depend on many
factors e.g. illness, activity levels, hot weather, body weight.

Exercise: Water lost through sweat when exercising must be replaced; dehydration will adversely
affect exercise performance.

Food Labelling

Food law in Europe establishes the rights of consumers to safe food and to accurate and honest information. In the UK, most packaged foods have labels on them with the “traffic light” system to help consumers identify the amount of energy in foods and the level of fat (total and saturated), sugars and salt.

Older Adults

Guidance is for average adults aged 16-64. Energy requirement decreases with age however, the need for key nutrients remains similar to younger adults, making it moredifficult to reach minimum nutrient requirements.

To reduce energy intake, reduce unnecessary foods high in fats and sugar, while keeping to guidelines for other, nutrient dense, food groups.