Food Groups- How to Strike a Perfect Balance

Know Your Foods- A Facts and Nutrition Guide

                                                                                            By- Dr. Panchali Moitra

Cereals, pulses, nuts or seeds- You must have come across these terms while reading diet charts, listening to health shows or browsing through nutrition based websites. While we may be aware that each of these food groups encompass an integral part of any healthy diet regime; the process of understanding the nutritional disparity between them and being able to choose the correct combination of each in our daily diet may become a baffling experience.  Let’s find out the key facts about each of these common foods and grasp their role in providing optimum nutrition.

Cereal Nutrition

An essential part of our daily diet, cereals include rice, wheat, oats, barley, millets, sorghum or jowar, nachni or ragi, maize and breakfast cereals.  Cereals provide our body with the energy to perform our daily activities and if chosen wisely, can arm us with adequate dietary fibre, B complex vitamins, essential fatty acids and minerals such as iron and calcium. They are best consumed in whole form as the process of refining removes the fibrous bran and the nutritious germ away and what is left behind is only the nutrient stripped simple carbohydrates.

Studies show that refining cereals may lead to a nutrient loss of up to 60% of fibre and folate; 90% of the minerals like selenium and almost a total loss of B vitamins and poly phenols. Overindulgence in these nutritionally void refined or polished cereals, such as the refined flour or maida based products (white breads, maida noodles, buns, cakes, cookies, etc) and sugary cereals is best restricted as they may lead to obesity and nutritional deficiencies.

  • The preferred cereals to be included in our diet are whole grains such as whole wheat, jowar, bajra, brown rice and oats. They are rich in complex carbohydrates which break down into glucose molecules and provide energy and bulk to our diet.
  • The protein (called gluten) present in cereals like wheat, oats and barley may not be tolerated by gluten sensitive or wheat intolerant individuals. Such individuals may avoid gluten containing cereals but must ensure to replace the missed nutrients by adding gluten free cereal alternatives such as rice, jowar, rice vermicelli, sabudaana or sago, millets and maize.
  • Cereals are usually low in vitamin A and vitamin C content. Sprouting of the cereals help to improve the nutritional content of cereals many fold.
  • In order to meet the recommended daily intake of nutrients, it is advised to ensure that 50-55% of the total calorie intake is derived from cereal based complex carbohydrates. Weight loss seekers may however choose to reduce the intake to around 40-45% under guided supervision.

Pulses Nutrition

There are instances when the word ‘legume’ is used interchangeably with ‘beans’ or ‘pulses’. The fact is that a legume is a broader term which includes all beans, peas, lentils, pulses and even peanuts (Yes, peanuts or groundnuts are not nuts but in fact belong to the legume family). The legumes represent the greatest source of plant protein and are also packed with complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, zinc, potassium, calcium, iron, and phyto chemicals. Nutritionally, the amount of protein present in half a cup of kidney beans (Rajmah) is similar to that present in approx 25 gms of meat and that too without any saturated fats and cholesterol. Often referred to as a vegetarian’s meat; beans and pulses are naturally low in sodium content, so are an excellent source of protein for people with history of hypertension and heart ailments.

  • Beans- Despite differences in shapes, sizes, colours, textures and flavours, beans are surprisingly similar in nutrient composition. Adding beans to our diet is a good way to reach our recommended intake of proteins and calcium. Beans include broad beans, kidney beans (rajmah), lobia, kabuli chana, green or black chanas, soybean and green moong. They must be soaked overnight and then cooked thoroughly with a pinch of asafoetida, fennel and cumin powder to reduce the effect of flatulence inducing oligosaccharides in beans.
  • Pulses and lentils- They include dals like masoor, urad, chana, arhar or tuar and are rich sources of proteins. Unlike beans, the lentils do not need overnight-soaking before cooking. Being rich in fibre, they enjoy a low glycemic index (the rate at which a food raises your blood sugar), and provide sustained energy while slowly being released into the blood stream. A one-half cup serving of most pulses contain 15 to 20 grams of carbohydrate and up to an incredible 8 grams of fibre.

Although, the protein content in pulses are higher than those in cereals (almost 2-3 times more than in rice and wheat), they lack an amino acid called methionine. Cereals have methionine in abundance and lack lysine which is in turn present in pulses. Thus in Indian cuisine, we consume cereals with pulses, for instance rice with dals or idli with sambhar.

Nuts and Seeds Nutrition

Nuts and seeds are often referred to as storehouses of vital nutrients as they are dense sources of protein, vitamins, fibre and minerals. They are rich in iron, magnesium and zinc which act as warriors against fatigue and stress; fibre and fatty acids that lower cholesterol; lecithin which is good for reproductive and endocrine health and potassium, which works with other minerals to regulate heart rate and blood pressure.

  • Nuts– Nuts include almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashew nuts etc. Studies on people who eat nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet have found that nuts lower the LDL, low-density lipoprotein or “bad,” cholesterol level in the blood. Total fat content for the nuts like almonds are over 50%, but most of it is monounsaturated fat – the type of fat that our body needs to protect levels of HDL – the ‘good’ cholesterol. There is no doubt that the nuts are higher in fat content than other plant foods but most of these are unsaturated and are therefore preferred over saturated fat rich animal proteins and processed snacks. Even though most of this fat is healthy fat, it’s still a lot of calories. That’s why you should eat nuts in moderation and only as a part of an otherwise healthy and balanced low fat diet.
  • Seeds –They include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, etc and are valuable for their rich vitamin A and E, mineral (copper, zinc, manganese, calcium, magnesium), poly phenols and fatty acid content.  The tiny sesame seeds contain almost ten times the calcium of an equal weight of milk. The recommended intake is 1-2 tbsp per day.


The Perfect Balance

Different Food GroupsThe perfect recipe to good health is a well balanced eating pattern with a variety of foods included from different food groups. While the eating plan may differ based on the age, calorie needs and medical condition, the perfect healthy diet for an adult with moderate activity levels must typically include 5-7 servings of carbohydrate rich cereals followed by 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables and 2-3 serving each of legumes and milk products. A restricted intake of fats, oils, sodium and sugar and an emphasis on drinking at least 8-10 glasses of water also helps. Include regular exercises to this plan and you surely have a winning formula for a happy, healthy life.



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