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The (New) 5 Food Groups to Get Lean & Healthy?

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

When it comes to losing fat without losing muscle to get that lean, healthy body you want, eating less calories then you burn while controlling insulin levels is critical. So how can you eat less calories than you burn without resorting to calorie counting? How do you know what foods spike insulin levels? What about making sure you’re eating enough protein?

While I’ve pointed out the benefits of the Harvard Healthy Eating Pyramid: Best Nutrition Guide You Don’t Know About, which I think is a solid framework for the general public, I wanted to take things a step further for you more advanced fitness devotees by introducing you to a conceptual framework I personally use and many natural bodybuilders, fitness models, and some sports nutritionists use as well, but it’s not mainstream at all.

This conceptual framework is based on 5 food groups, but they are different from the five food groups you probably know.

The Old Five Food Groups: USDA MyPyramid

The traditional food pyramid separates out food groups based on their basic properties:

1) Grains

Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley or another cereal grain is a grain product. Grains are divided into 2 subgroups, whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel — the bran, germ, and endosperm whereas refined grains have been milled, a process that removes the bran and germ.

Whole-wheat flour
Bulgur (cracked wheat)
Whole cornmeal
Brown rice
White flour
Degermed cornmeal
White bread
White rice

2) Vegetables

The meaning a vegetable is largely based on culinary and cultural tradition, but usually it means an edible plant, or part of a plant other than a sweet fruit, or seed. Vegetables are further divided into 4 sub-groups:

Dark Green Vegetables
Collard greens
Dark green leafy lettuce
Orange Vegetables
Dry Beans and Peas
Kidney beans
Lima beans
Starchy vegetables
Green peas
Lima beans (green)
Other Vegetables
Bean sprouts

3) Fruits

The non-technical meaning is a structure of a plant that contains seeds and is sweet and edible in its raw state.

• Apples
• Apricots
• Avocado
• Grapes

4) Milk (aka Dairy)

Milk is an “opaque white liquid produced by the mammary glands of mammals”. Now that sounds appetizing. Milk contains all essential amino acids.

• Whole milk
• Yogurt
• Cheese
• Eggs

5) Meat & Beans

Wait, didn’t we just say beans are a vegetable? Well, according to the USDA, they are in the Meat & Beans group too because they contain some protein. I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to get confused. Meats include fish, beef, chicken, pork and other wildlife.

Finally, there is “Fat”, or oils, which are technically considered a separate food group, but few people acknowledge this.

The (New) Five Food Groups

The (new) five food groups separate food groups by their macronutrient profile, not just based on whether they are a plant, or animal, fruit, or vegetable. What I mean by “macronutrient profile” is that there are 3 macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) that provide calories to your body AND affect your body in different ways.

For example, protein (4 calories per gram) helps repair body tissue such as muscle, ligaments, organs. Carbohydrates (4 calories per gram) provide energy for your body and effect your insulin levels, which in turn directly affects your ability to lose fat. Because eating the right amount and type of carbohydrates is so important for losing fat, carbs are split into three sub-categories, fibrous, starchy, and simple. And finally you have fat, which contains 9 calories per gram, more than double protein and carbs! Dietary fat provides energy, helps maintain proper hormone function, and helps carry vitamins to a name a few of its benefits.

So now, wouldn’t it make sense to group foods based on their macronutrient profile, or roughly how much protein, carbs, or fat they contain? I think so!

Here are the “new” five food groups, which have been used by natural bodybuilders, fitness models, and sports nutritionists for years:

1) Lean Protein

Lean proteins includes any type of protein that has all 8 essential amino acids and is low in fat such as lean meats (fish, chicken, turkey etc.) and low fat dairy.

2) Fibrous Carbs

These are vegetables that are high in fiber, low in sugar and total carbs. From the USDA pyramid, all dark green vegetables are fibrous carbs. Orange vegetables and “beans”, however are NOT considered fibrous carbs, even though they are vegetables because they are much higher in total carbohydrates.

3) Starchy Carbs

Any food that has a relatively high amount of carbs, lower in protein, fat, and sugar is considered a “starchy” carb. Foods include cereals, bread, potatoes, legumes (beans), pasta, rice, and orange veggies like squash. This is similar to the grains category in the USDA pyramid, but with orange veggies and beans thrown in.

Notice how beans are not considered a lean protein, based on their macronutrient profile. Most starchy carbs are rated medium to high on the glycemic index, which rates carbs according to their effect on blood-glucose levels. Starchy carbs are sometimes referred to as “fattening” carbs, but this is a stretch in my opinion. People who follow the Paleo diet (caveman diet), or Atkins diet eat almost no starches. As I’ve said before, I eat a moderate amount (40%-50% of my calories) of natural carbs.

4) Simple Carbs

Fruits, soft drinks like Coke, or sugary foods like a Snickers Bar are considered simple carbs. Of course, fruit is healthier than a candy bar because of the vitamins they contain AND because they typically have a lower insulin effect (fructose vs. sucrose), but all sugary substances go in this category. The molecular structure of “simple” carbs food is less complex than that of starches for example, which is why they typically spike insulin to a greater degree. Of course, I don’t recommend eating anything other than fruits as your source of simple carbs.

5) Fats

If a food derives most of its calories from fat, you can definitely put it in the “fat” category. Avocado, even though it’s technically a fruit, is not a simple carb at all, because it’s mostly fat (75% of calories!).

Fatty meats like bacon and deep fried chicken go in the “fat” category, not the protein category. Did you know a 6 ounce 80/20 hamburger, marked as 80% lean, 20% fat, really has 30 grams of fat, which is almost 60% of calories coming from fat? Other fats include butter, oils, nuts, and hummus, which contains about 40% of its calories from fat.

The limitation to this framework is that these five food groups do not necessarily provide the right nutrients to your body if you don’t eat at least some variety in each category, and some of the foods can be arguably be in 2 groups, like hummus, which can be a starch, but still has 40% of calories from fat.

I do believe, however, that eating foods using the new five food groups conceptual framework, it’s MUCH easier to control total calories and insulin levels, which is what fat loss nutrition is all about. It’s easier to control calories because now you will know what foods are high in fat and you should eat sparingly, you can control carb intake because you will know what foods are high in carbs (manage insulin levels), and finally you can consume ample, high value protein.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think these 5 food groups make more sense to you than the USDA five food groups? Is this even more confusing?


  • Ari says:

    Hi Marc,

    I just learned about your website through a friend and I am amazed and thankful for all your info. Just one question: I unfortunetly have high cholesterol levels thanks to my genes and I am now stuck on what I should or shouldn't eat? I was given a guide called the Mediterranean diet, do you have any info or insight on this diet?

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Ari - I wanted to follow up with you about the Cholesterol question. A diet called the Portfolio Diet by Dr. David Jenkins was able to lower bad cholesterol as much as statins. The idea is that a portfolio of foods that provide a hefty amount of soluble fiber and plant sterols can do the trick. Definitely look into the Portfolio Diet.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Ari - Thanks for checking out my site. I appreciate it! Sorry to hear about the cholesterol issue. I have a friend who has high cholesterol and she's had it since she was a little kid. She takes medication to help keep it lower. I am familiar with the Mediterranean diet, which is a relatively high fat diet, 30-40% of calories typically come from healthy dietary fat like olive oil, nuts and seeds. I think the conversation of what best to eat to help lower your cholesterol is best done with your doctor, or a registered dietitian. I would love to help more but it's outside my scope, which is mostly focused on fat loss.

  • Anika says:

    wow this has been really helpful for me actually... i just got into the whole eating healthy thing and was confused over the types of carbs. i would really appreciate if you could write something on what combinations of macros and intervals are ideal for weight loss and gaining muscle. For example I read your article on pre workout meals and post work out meals. I'd really appreciate if you came up with more details on for eg perhaps higher protein + low fat, protein : carb ratios, basically ideal combos!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Anika - Thanks for the question. I do plan on tackling ideal macronutrient ratios in the future, but I'll give you the short scoop:

      I generally believe a relatively higher protein diet is good whether you want to lose weight, or build muscle. By high protein, I mean relative to customary dietary guidelines of 10-15% of total calories. I think the 30-35% range can work well for active individuals who also do some strength training. For couch potatoes, 10-15% can work well!

      The tricky part is carbs/fat breakdown. There are high fat and low fat phenotypes, where some people lose more fat on lower fat diets, and some lose more fat on higher fat diets (which implies higher carb vs. lower carb). Some diets like the Paleo diet call for as much as 65% of calories from fat, where a bodybuilding diet is around 20% from fat. Me personally, my sweet spot is around 30-35% protein, 40-45% carbs, and 25% fat. Again, I think you should play with it to see what creates a feeling of satiety for you and helps you get the best results. At some point, I imagine we will be able to genetically test what types of foods/macronutrient ratios are ideal for a given person, but this type or testing is still being refined.

      Between gaining muscle and losing fat, it's less tweaking the macronutrient ratios and more eating less, or more calories. With that said, I generally up my carb intake a bit in addition to total calorie intake when gaining muscle.

  • Kornkarn says:

    It is very clear Marc. Good general grouping for current time. My hat off for you.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Happy you enjoyed the article! I think conceptually it's a powerful way to think about food as long as you don't lose sight of the nutrient density and breath of the food you are eating.

  • Erica says:

    Marc -

    I enjoyed your site and I think the point your trying to make is very clear. You broke it down in easy terms which helps to understanding it better. With all the information out there about eating right, you did a nice job explaining it.

    Keep it up!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Erica - Thanks for the comment. Much appreciated!

  • jennifer says:

    Hi marc..
    i have been exercizing for quite sometimes but im not losing weight...
    i once loss 25kgs thru diet n exercises but then i put on back 10 kgs. Im desperate abt this. How can i adjust my food intake to make this happen a bit fast? ?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @jennifer - Track your nutrition intake by using a food journal is probably the best way to make your eating habits conscious so you can change them. If you are unable to change your eating habits for the long haul, the weight will keep coming back.

  • Oscar says:

    Hi Marc,
    If I follow your sample meal and I eat similar during the other days, am I getting enough protein to build muscle or should I get a protein shake after workout or HIIT?
    Thank you.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Oscar - The general rule regarding protein intake and muscle building is shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. I don't love protein supplement, but post-workout and during a muscle building program, they can make a lot of sense.

  • Jayesh says:

    If I eat any food but under calorie count will it help in weight loss ie if I eat fatty food but not exceeding calorie intake of a day will I be adding up weight

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Jayesh, according to the Energy Balance Theory of weight loss, if you eat less calories than you burn, you will lose weight. The macronutrient breakdowns of those calories (protein, carbs, and fat) are less important. So yes, you can eat a higher percentage of dietary fat while keeping your total calorie intake lower and still lose weight. With that said, the pace of fat loss may be different on isocaloric diets (diets that have the same number of calories) that have different macronutrient breakdowns. Ultimately, you should find a breakdown of macronutrients that keeps you feeling full yet does not provide many calories and use that strategy.

  • Paul G says:

    Hi Marc, first let me say thanks for your site! I have book marked it and find very informative, refreshing and honest!

    I would like to refer to further research on the role of insulin in body fatness and dig a little deeper.
    A good source is Stephan Guyenet's blog and in particular his article titled:

    The Carbohydrate Hypothesis of Obesity: a Critical Examination

    You can find it here: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2011/08/carbohydrate-hypothesis-of-obesity.html

    Keep up the good work!!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Paul G - Thanks for the kind words regarding the site! I am aware of Stephan Guyenet's blog having read many articles. Thanks for mentioning. We have an article planned that will attempt to tackle the energy balance theory vs. carbohydrate hypothesis debate, so we'll see how that goes! We will be drawing much of the information from Stephan's articles, and also Petro Dobromylskyj at hyperlipid.

  • Priscilla L. Martin says:

    Nice cupcake article. The article led me to this older article because I am interested in the food groups. I have been trying to understand what insulin spike means. I think I understand from your article that sugar level can fall with such as intense short term workout, which might lead to rapid heart rate, which requires proper nutrition and rest. Is that correct?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Priscilla - I would recommend checking out my article on carbohydrates. Insulin is a storage hormone that sucks excess glucose/sugar out of your blood stream. When you eat a lot of sugar, or processed carbs, your insulin levels can spike, which may make you hungrier faster. Over time, frequent insulin spikes from over-consumption of sugar can lead to diabetes.

  • uncadonego says:

    Hi Marc - The Harvard Pyramid says to only eat 2-3 servings of fruit per day. I estimate that I am eating 5 or 6 a day. Umm, sometimes more. It has become my replacement for all other snacks like pies, tarts, chips, and chocolate bars. I've lost over 30 lbs. in less than 9 weeks so far, but is there a time coming when eating all this fruit will get in my way, vis-a-vis getting lean?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @uncadonego - At the end of the day, it's about calories in and calories out. If you are eating less calories than you are burning, you should continue losing fat. There is no doubt fruit is better than chocolate bars. I usually eat around 2-3 servings per day, so basically with my breakfast and in between one of my meals. Works for me, but ultimately you have to find what works for you.