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University of Illinois Extension

Food Groups and Diabetes


What are Macronutrients?

nutrients that provide calories (energy)

Macronutrients are nutrients that provide calories (energy). Nutrients are substances needed for growth, metabolism, and other functioning. Since “macro” means large, macronutrients are nutrients needed in large amounts. There are three categories of macronutrients:

While each of these macronutrients provides calories, the amount of calories that each one provides varies. One gram of carbohydrate or protein provides 4 calories per gram. One gram of fat provides 9 calories per gram. If you looked at the Nutrition Facts label of a food product and it said 12 grams of carbohydrate, 0 grams of fat, and 0 grams of protein per serving, you would know that this food has about 48 calories per serving (12 grams carbohydrate multiplied by 4 calories for each gram of carbohydrate = 48 calories). The only other substance that provides calories is alcohol, which provides 7 calories per gram. Alcohol, however, is not a macronutrient, because we do not need it for survival.

Macronutrients are not the only things that we need for health. Our body also needs water and micronutrients. According to the 2004 Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), adult men need about 3.7 liters of water per day, and adult women need about 2.7 liters of water per day. Micronutrients are nutrients that our bodies need in smaller amounts, and include vitamins and minerals.


Why are Foods put Together in Groups?

For people with diabetes, it is important to understand what foods are made of so that blood glucose levels can be more easily controlled. Memorizing the exact amount of carbohydrate in all the foods that we eat would be almost impossible and impractical. Fortunately there are six main food groups:

It is important to eat foods from each group every day. The type and the amount of food that you chose to eat can have either positive or negative effects on your health.


What Counts as a Portion or Serving?

The amount of food that you eat from the food groups can impact both your weight and blood glucose level. For instance, eating too much food from any food group is likely to cause weight gain. This weight gain can lead to higher blood glucose levels. Eating too much from the starch and starchy vegetables group, the fruit group, or the milk and yogurt group will cause your blood glucose levels to rise if you have diabetes. But how much food is too much, and what is a portion or serving size?

We sometimes think of what we put on our plate as a portion and a serving. While what we put on our plate may be considered a portion, it usually isn’t a serving in the way that dietitians think of servings. To care for yourself and your diet, you will need to begin thinking like a dietitian, and recognize that portions and servings are different.

Since portion sizes can vary from person to person, they are not a good measure of how much you should eat in one day. Serving sizes, however, are much more strictly defined and do not vary from person to person. The American Diabetes Association has set serving sizes for foods in the various food groups. These serving sizes make it easier to identify how many calories, and how much carbohydrate, fat, and protein are in various foods.

It is important to remember that serving sizes may not be the same as the serving sizes listed on Nutrition Facts labels. Companies that make food products, for the most part, are allowed to decide what the serving size on their product should be. This serving size is often based on how much an average person would eat.

Nutrition Facts

For instance, a Nutrition Facts label on a package of bread might list one serving as one or two slices of bread with either 67 or 134 calories and 12 or 24 grams of carbohydrate. However, one serving from the starch group is defined by the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association as one slice of bread with about 80 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrate. Serving sizes on Nutrition Facts labels vary depending on the product and the company that makes it. For this reason, it is always important to look at the calories and macronutrients as well as the serving sizes listed on the Nutrition Facts labels.


The Starch and Starchy Vegetables Group

Foods in this group include cereals, grains, pasta, breads, and crackers. All of these foods are grouped together, because the majority of the calories they contain come from carbohydrates, these foods also contain some protein and sometimes fat. Cooked beans, peas, and lentils also belong in this group, but because they contain more protein they are also part of the meat and meat substitutes group. For this reason, eating one serving of beans, peas or lentils will count as one serving from the starch group and one serving from the meat group. This concept is explained in further detail in the section titled The Meat and Meat Substitutes Group.

People with diabetes do not need to avoid foods found in the starch and starchy vegetables group. In fact, people with diabetes need to eat foods from this group to help meet their daily requirement for calories, macronutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and for overall good health. Foods in this group, however, do contain carbohydrates that can raise blood glucose. It is important to space servings from this group (and the milk and fruit groups) evenly throughout the day, and only eat the number of serving that your doctor or dietitian has recommended. This will help to keep blood glucose levels within your target range.

One Serving from the Starch and Starchy Vegetable Group

One serving from the starch and starchy vegetables group contains about 80 calories, 15 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of protein, and 0-1 grams of fat.bread

Examples of one serving from this group would include:

Starchy vegetables are healthy, but they are higher in carbohydrate than other vegetables and they have more calories. Therefore, these vegetables are grouped with other starchy foods instead of vegetables. One serving of any starchy vegetable is about 1/2 cup cooked vegetable. Starchy vegetables include:peas

Remember, one serving from this group contains 15 grams of carbohydrate. If you are unsure of how many starch servings a food contains, check the Nutrition Facts label. Look at the total carbohydrates and divide by 15 to find out how many starch servings the product contains. For instance, if the Nutrition Facts label for a package of English muffins says that one English muffin contains 30 grams of carbohydrate, then this would count as two servings from the Starch Group.

Tips for Choosing Foods from the Starch and Starchy Vegetable Group


Think About Tortillas

tortilla

Not all tortillas are equal!

When counting calories and carbohydrates to self-manage your blood sugar levels, know that tortillas are not one in the same. Tortillas can vary in size, shape, color, and texture. Tortillas can range in sizes from a regular 6" (about the size of your hand) to ones larger than your head! If you eat two 6" flour tortillas (220 calories, 42 grams of carbohydrate) this is NOT the same as consuming two 10" flour tortillas (346 calories and 66 grams of carbohydrate).

Flour tortillas tend to have more carbohydrate than corn tortillas of the same weight.  If you eat one 10" flour tortilla, you have consumed 173 calories and 33 grams of carbohydrate (2 carbohydrate exchanges).  If you consume three 6" corn tortillas, you will have taken in 150 calories and the same amount of carbohydrate (33 grams) as the one 10" flour tortilla.

Also, hard-shell tortillas, which have typically been fried in oil, will have more fat and calories than a soft tortilla of the same weight.  If you are monitoring your carbohydrate intake to control your blood sugar levels, be sure to read the nutrition facts label on your tortillas. It is typical to eat several tortillas with each meal, so be sure to look at the size and type of tortillas you are consuming.

Example: Tortilla Nutrition Facts

*these are examples — depending on the brand, tortillas can vary significantly in calories, fat, carbohydrate and other nutrients

Type Corn Flour Flour
Diameter 6" 6" 10"
Calories 50 110 173
% fat 10 9 14
Fat (g) 0.5 1 1.5
Sat fat (g) 0 0 0.5
Sodium (mg) 0 286 451
Carbohydrate (g) 11 21 33
Fiber (g) 1 3 5
Protein (g) 1 4 6
Calcium (%DV) 6 6 10
Iron (%DV) 2 3 6

The Fruit Group

Foods in this group include fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruit as well as fruit juices. All fruits are grouped together because all of their calories come from carbohydrates. Fruits contain very little protein and no fat.

Although foods with carbohydrates raise blood glucose, people with diabetes do not need to avoid fruits or fruit juice. In fact, it is important that everyone eat at least 2 servings of fruit every day. However, as with other foods, fruits need to be part of the meal plan.

fruits in a bowl

One Serving from the Fruit Group

One serving from the Fruit Group contains about 60 calories and 15 grams of carbohydrate.

Examples of one serving from this group would include:

Tips for Choosing Foods from the Fruit Group


The Vegetable Group

Foods in this group include vegetables that contain few calories, carbohydrates, and protein. These non-starchy vegetables may be fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables. Vegetable juices are also found in this group.

Non-starchy vegetables are a real nutrition bargain. They are rich in vitamins and minerals. Vegetables are also low in calories and fat, and they are a good source of fiber. Since vegetables are lower in carbohydrates than fruit, they can often be eaten in much larger servings and more often than fruit.

vegetables

One Serving from the Vegetable Group

One serving from the vegetable group contains about 25 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrate, and 5 grams of protein.

Examples of one serving from this group would include:

Tips for Choosing Foods from the Vegetable Group


The Meats, Fish, Meat Substitutes, Eggs and Cheese Group

Foods in this group include meats (like beef, chicken, and pork), fish (like salmon, tuna, and shrimp), meat substitutes (like tofu, and products that resemble meat or fish but are made with soy), eggs, and cheese. These foods are grouped together, because the majority of the calories they contain come from protein and/or fat. Cooked beans, peas, and lentils also are in this group because of the protein that they contain, but are also considered starchy vegetables because of their carbohydrate content. While some meat substitutes and cheeses may contain small amounts of carbohydrate, the main macronutrients in these foods are protein and fat. Nuts are also often placed in this group because nuts contain some protein, but they are also high in fat.

Protein is very important in our daily diet. We need protein to maintain muscles, make enzymes, and keep our immune system working well. However, items in this group can be high in calories. Also, meat, eggs, and cheeses in particular can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. People with diabetes need to make heart-healthy choices when choosing foods from this group because of their increased risk for cardiovascular complications. See the section titled Eating for Cardiovascular Health.

there is something fishy about this photo

One Serving from the Meats, Fish, Meat Substitutes, Eggs and Cheese Group

One serving from the meats, fish, meat substitutes, eggs, and cheese group usually contains about 7 grams of protein, but the amount of calories, carbohydrate, and fat in foods from this group varies depending on the type of food. For instance some meats like salami contain a higher amount of fat than lean meats like chicken. Foods in this group with higher amounts of fat per serving also contain more calories per serving. The carbohydrate content of foods in this group also varies. For instance, meats and eggs do not contain any carbohydrate, but beans and soy do. Chicken and fish will contain less fat than hot dogs or cheese.

Examples of one serving from this group would include:

The serving sizes of foods in this group are very small. Since not many people eat one ounce of meat or cheese at a time, 3 servings (3 ounces) of food from this group is usually considered to be a portion. Ask your health care provider or dietitian how many servings you should eat from this group every day.

Nuts, Beans, and Soy Products

Nuts, beans, and some soy products are good sources of fiber since they are also vegetables, or legumes. Although nuts contain both fiber and protein, they are also high in fat. When nuts are eaten in smaller amounts, they are usually considered to be a serving from the fat group, but when they are eaten in larger amounts they are considered a serving of high-fat meat. For instance ½ tablespoon of peanut butter is considered to be one serving from the fat group, but one tablespoon of peanut butter is considered one serving from the meat and meat substitutes group. Like nuts, soybeans and beans contain both carbohydrate and protein. Unlike nuts, however, they are usually low in fat. One cup of whole soybeans or beans contains about 8 grams of fiber. Processing will lower the fiber content of some soy products, such as tofu.

Tips for Choosing Foods from Meats, Fish, Meat Substitutes, Eggs and Cheese Group


The Milk and Yogurt Group

Foods in this group include milk and yogurt. These foods are grouped together, because they contain similar amounts of carbohydrate and fat. While milk and yogurt usually contain similar amounts of protein and carbohydrates, they can vary in their fat content.

yogurt

One Serving from the Milk and Yogurt Group

One serving from the Milk and Yogurt Group usually contains about 12 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein, but the amount of fat and calories in these foods varies. For instance, one cup of fat-free milk contains about 90 calories and 0 grams of fat, but one cup of whole milk contains about 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. Check the Nutrition Facts labels of these products to identify the amount of calories and fat that they contain.

Examples of one serving from this group would include:

Tips for Choosing Foods from the Milk and Yogurt Group


The Fats and Oils Group

Foods in this group include butter, margarine, salad dressing, mayonnaise, sour cream, oils, lard, and nuts. The foods in this group are grouped together because they contain similar amounts of calories and fat per serving and, with the exception of nuts, contain little protein or carbohydrates. Although fat is often thought of as being unhealthy for you, fat is essential for life. We need a certain amount of fat each day. The hard part is deciding what types and how much fat to eat.

There are four main types of fat, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, trans, and saturated fats. All of these names describe the chemical structure of the different fats. Most foods contain a mixture of these four types of fats, but they are grouped by the type of fat that is present in the largest amount. While it is true that all fat is high in calories and that too much of any type of fat may be unhealthy, some types of fat are better for you than others. Saturated and trans fats have been shown to increase the risk for heart disease, but polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have been shown to have no effect on or decrease the risk for heart disease. See the section titled Eating for Cardiovascular Health.

One Serving from the Oils and Fats Group

One serving from the Oils and Fats Group contains about 45 calories and 5 grams of fat. Examples of one serving of monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats include:almonds

Examples of one serving of saturated fats include:

Tips for Choosing Foods from the Fats and Oils Group

Read the Nutrition Facts label if you are unsure of how many fat or oil servings a certain amount of food contains.


This site was last updated June, 2014.
This is a source of information only, and is not medical advice.