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Understanding the USDA Food Pyramid

Fats, Proteins, and Carbs

© 2006 Publications International, Ltd. Meals like a salad provide the nutrients needed for optimum health while allowing you to manage your weight.

Is it realistic to think you'll never eat another carbohydrate again? Or that you'll never eat another high-fat food? Not likely. An eating plan that cuts out an entire type of food doesn't usually last for long, and once you're back to your old routine, you start to regain weight. Plus, it's just not healthy. Your body is designed to run on a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat to make it all "go."

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a balanced diet that includes carbohydrate, protein, and fat. The Guidelines also give specifics about how much food to consume from each food group.



The Dietary Guidelines recommend that carbohydrates supply 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories. That's easy to do when you consider that all foods except meat, fish, and poultry have at least some carbohydrate in them. There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. And they are naturally low in fat and calories. Fiber, the indigestible part of plant food, is a no-calorie nutrient that's full of benefits for your digestive system and for your weight-loss efforts. Fiber sops up fluid like a sponge, expanding in your stomach so it takes less food to satisfy your hunger. It helps regulate blood sugar, so you don't experience the sharp drops that can cause hunger and food cravings. And fiber helps prevent disease, keeping cholesterol levels down and stimulating your intestines. Complex, fiber-filled carbohydrate is found mostly in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates that have been refined, such as white flour and white rice, have had most of the fiber and many other nutrients removed. Simple carbohydrates are found in milk, fruit, some vegetables, and processed sugars such as table sugar and corn syrup. Naturally occurring simple sugars, such as those in milk, fruit, and vegetables, have many healthful nutrients, including vitamins and minerals. Processed sugars, however, are mostly devoid of nutrients, so steer clear of them.

Carbohydrates are your body's primary fuel. They are broken down into glucose, which is the best fuel source for your brain and muscles. Without enough carbohydrates, your body takes drastic measures to make the glucose it needs. When this happens, you have less energy and feel tired. You may feel light-headed, dizzy, and unable to think clearly. And when you limit carbohydrate intake, you actually inhibit your weight-loss efforts. Your body needs carbohydrate to burn stored fat. Eating the right amount of carbohydrate will help you get rid of stored fat, and you'll feel better while doing so.


Protein-rich foods should make up about 10 to 35 percent of your calories. Smart protein food choices include lean meat, fish, and poultry, along with eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While some of these, such as nuts and seeds, are high in calories, they are a great source of certain nutrients. Include them in small amounts as an occasional protein choice. The average American already eats twice the recommended amount of protein and does not need to focus on increasing protein intake. Typically two or three servings each day will easily provide the recommended amount.

Protein foods supply the nutrients needed for your body to build, repair, and maintain itself. There are certain protein substances the body cannot make. Since these must be obtained from food, protein plays an important role in good health.


The MyPyramid food guide contains a thin yellow band representing healthy oils. Healthy fats include vegetable oils, fish oils, and the oils found in nuts and seeds. This is the first time a U.S. food guide has depicted oils as a food group necessary for good health. At the same time, the Dietary Guidelines caution consumers to limit solid fats, such as those found in meat, whole-fat dairy products, and processed foods. High in calories but essential for a balanced eating pattern, total fats should supply 20 to 35 percent of calories, with most of the fat consumed coming from oils.

If fat is so high in calories, you might wonder why the recommended percentage of daily calories isn't lower. The answer is that fat is vital to many body functions. Vegetable oils contain vitamin E, an essential fat-soluble vitamin. Healthy oils also supply your body with "essential" fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids. These special fats cannot be constructed by your body, so you must get them from food.

Because fat is also essential for proper brain and nerve development, the Dietary Guidelines' fat intake recommendations are based on age:

  • Adults -- 20-35 percent of calories
  • Age 4-18 -- 25-35 percent of calories
  • Age 2-3 -- 30-35 percent of calories
  • Newborns to age 2 -- No fat restriction

Fat plays an important role in satisfying hunger, but you need to be careful about the kind of fat you eat. Most of your dietary fat should come from oils: monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil and canola oil) and polyunsaturated fats (such as soybean, safflower, corn, and sunflower oils). The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that you limit your intake of saturated fat, in nonlean meat, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as palm kernel and coconut oil, to less than ten percent of your total calorie intake. The Guidelines further recommend that you limit your intake of trans fats, which are hydrogenated fats (a process that changes unsaturated fats into saturated fats). Trans fats are found in products such as margarine, fried foods, many baked goods, and other processed foods. Both saturated and trans fats spell trouble for your arteries and heart because they are converted into artery-clogging cholesterol in your body. To work fats into your weight-loss regime, you'll want to aim for the low end of your recommended amount, say 20 percent of calories from fat for adults. If you consume more fat than that, you'll end up tipping your calorie scale in the wrong direction. Make wise choices and eat modest amounts of heart-healthy oils while limiting the less-healthy solid fats.Our final section will look at ways to use fluids and vitamins as part of a balanced diet.