The five food groups

A balanced diet is made up of the 5 food groups.

What are the five food groups?

  • Fruit and vegetables

  • Starchy food

  • Dairy

  • Protein

  • Fat

You can read more about these below, including where to get them and how much you should eat.

Fruit and vegetables

You should eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. They contain important vitamins and minerals that help prevent disease as well as fibre which can lower cholesterol, keep the bowel healthy and help digestion.

Fruit and vegetables are low in fat, so they’re great for bulking out meals and making you feel full without adding too many calories.

It’s easy to get your five a day if you spread your portions through the day. Try:

  • adding chopped bananas to your cereal or toast at breakfast
  • enjoying a piece of fruit as a mid-morning snack
  • including a bowl of salad or vegetable soup with your lunch
  • snacking on a bowl of raw carrots, peppers and cucumbers mid-afternoon
  • adding a portion of veg to your evening meal.

What counts as a portion of fruit and vegetables?

  • 1 apple, banana, pear, orange or other similar sized fruit
  • 2 plums or similar sized fruit
  • Half a grapefruit or avocado
  • 1 slice of large fruit like melon or pineapple
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of vegetables
  • 3 heaped tablespoons of fruit salad or stewed fruit
  • A dessert bowl of salad

These foods and drinks also count as one portion, but you can only count them once each day:

  • 3 heaped tablespoons of beans or pulses
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of dried fruit like raisins or apricots
  • 150ml of fruit juice or smoothie.

Fruit juice and smoothies contain a lot of sugar, so limit them to just 150ml a day – that’s around the same as a small glass. Dried fruit is also high in sugar so it’s best not to eat it in-between meals to help prevent tooth decay.

Good to know

Fresh, frozen, tinned or dried fruit and vegetables all count towards your five a day. Check the labels and choose low sugar and salt options.

Starchy food

Starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice and pasta should make up around a third of what you eat. They’re a good source of energy and essential fibre, calcium, iron and vitamins. Gram for gram, starchy foods contain less than half the calories of fat. Try not to add extra fat to starchy food by adding butter, oil, spreads, cheese or jam – that’s just adding more calories.

Good to know

It’s a good idea to base each meal around starchy foods. Try:

  • starting your day with a wholegrain breakfast cereal
  • having a sandwich made with wholemeal bread for lunch
  • including potatoes, pasta or rice with your evening meal.

Wholegrain foods usually have more fibre and nutrients. They take longer to digest so they can help you feel full for longer. Good examples of wholegrains are brown rice, wholewheat pasta, whole oats, wholegrain breakfast cereals and wholemeal bread, pitta and chapatti. You can also buy higher fibre foods made with a combination of wholegrain and white flour, like 50/50 bread.

Always check the label to find lower salt and sugar versions.


Dairy and dairy alternatives are good sources of protein and vitamins. They also contain calcium, which helps keep our bones healthy and strong. Semi-skimmed, skimmed, and 1% fat milk all contain less fat than full-fat milk, but still give you protein, vitamins and calcium.

Dairy-free milk alternatives include soya milk and nut milks – if you chose dairy-free milk then go for unsweetened varieties which have been fortified with calcium.

Some dairy products like cheese and yoghurts can be high in salt, sugar or fat (especially saturated fat), so always check the label.

Good to know

Try using a strong flavoured cheese, like mature cheddar – the strong flavour means you can use less without sacrificing taste, and so reduce fat. Try grating cheese too – a little goes a long way so you’ll use less.



Pulses are things like beans, peas and lentils. They’re a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals and are naturally very low in fat. They count towards your five a day but only as one portion, no matter how much you eat.

Pulses are great for bulking out things like soups, casseroles and meat sauces. They add extra flavour and texture and mean you can use less meat. This reduces the amount of fat you’re eating and also means your money will go further too, as pulses are usually cheaper than meat.

Other vegetable protein

Other vegetable-based sources of protein include tofu, bean curd and mycoprotein and Quorn. They are full of protein, low in fat and can be used in place of meat in most recipes.


Fish is a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals.  Aim to eat at least two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oil-rich (one portion is around 140g). Choose from fresh, frozen or tinned fish.

Oil-rich fish

Oil-rich fish like salmon and mackerel contain omega 3 fatty acids which keep our hearts healthy and are a good source of vitamins A and D.

Oil-rich fish can contain low levels of pollutants that can build up in the body, so most of us shouldn’t eat more than four portions a week. There is extra advice to follow if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding.

White fish and shellfish

White fish includes fish like haddock, plaice, coley, cod, skate and hake. It’s low in fat, contains important vitamins and minerals and a great alternative to meat. Choose fresh, frozen or tinned white fish, but remember smoked fish or fish tinned in brine can be high in salt so always check the label before you buy.

Shark, swordfish and marlin

Adults shouldn’t eat more than one portion of swordfish, shark or marlin per week. Children, pregnant women and women who are trying to get pregnant shouldn’t eat swordfish as it contains more mercury than other fish.

Good to know

It’s best to steam, bake or grill fish. Fried fish, especially battered fish, has more fat.


Eggs are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. They’re a good choice as part of a healthy balanced diet and there’s no recommended limit on the number of eggs you can eat in a week. Eggs are great for making healthy, quick dishes. Try to avoid adding too much fat to eggs when cooking – poaching, scrambling or boiling is best. If you do fry eggs, don’t add too much oil to the pan and choose healthier unsaturated oils like vegetable, rapeseed or olive oil. Our food safety pages have more information about cooking eggs.

Quiches and flans contain eggs but can be high in fat and salt so eat them less often.


Meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals. It’s one of the main sources of vitamin B12, an important vitamin which is only found in food from animals like meat and milk. It’s important to know how to cook and handle meat safely.

Red and processed meat

Red meat includes beef, lamb, venison and pork, all of which can form part of a healthy diet. Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. Processed meat includes things like sausages, bacon, burgers, ham, salami, other cured meats and pâté.

Eating too much red and processed meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer. Aim to eat no more than 70g of red and processed meat a day – that’s around two slices of roast meat or two sausages. Try to cut back if you eat more than 90g (around 3 slices of roast meat) of red and processed meat a day.

Some types of meat are higher in fat, especially saturated fat. Eating lots of saturated fat can increase blood cholesterol levels which increases the risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Always try to choose lean cuts of meat with less visible white fat.

Tips to help you cut the amount of fat in meat dishes:

  • Swap some of the meat for beans, peas and lentils – this will help your meal go further
  • Grill meat rather than frying it
  • If you’re roasting meat, place it on a metal rack above the roasting tin so the fat can run out
  • Choose lean cuts and leaner mince - check the label or ask your butcher.
  • Cut off excess fat before or after cooking
  • Add as little fat as possible before or during cooking
  • Substitute some of the meat in your recipe for vegetable sources of protein.


Oils and spreads

Some fat in our diet is essential but most of us eat too much. Plant-based oils like vegetable, rapeseed and olive oil are rich in unsaturated fat, so they can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Lower fat unsaturated spreads are a good alternative to butter.

Good to know

Some fats are healthier than others but all fats have a lot of calories – limit them in your diet to help stay at a healthy weight.

Food and drink high in fat, salt and sugars

Food and drink high in fat, salt or sugar include chocolate, cakes, biscuits, savoury snacks and full-sugar soft drinks. In Scotland, half of the sugar we eat and around 20% of the calories and fat we consume comes from this kind of food. High fat, salt and sugar food and drink tends to have lots of calories and with little nutritional value and we don’t need it as part of a healthy balanced diet.

If you do want to include this kind of food in your diet, do it less often and in small amounts.

In Scotland, most of us eat too much sugar – in fact, we need to reduce the amount of sugar we eat by two-thirds. Too much sugar increases the risk of tooth decay and obesity.


The body constantly loses fluid through breathing, sweating or going to the toilet and therefore this needs to be replaced. Aim to drink 6-8 glasses of fluid each day to help keep the body hydrated.

Water, lower fat milk and sugar free drinks, including tea and coffee all count. Choose sugar free options instead of sugary drinks.

Limit consumption of fruit juices and smoothies to no more than a combined total of 150ml per day, because they are high in sugar.

Alcohol contains lots of calories, however the amount of calories an alcoholic drink contains depends on the type of alcohol, the amount served and what mixers are added. As an example, 1 pint of lager or a 175ml glass of wine contains around 135 calories while a 25ml shot of spirit contains around 56 calories.

To minimise the health risks associated with drinking alcohol, consumption should be limited to no more than 14 units per week for men and women. One unit is the same as one small single measure of spirits, while a 175ml glass of wine or a pint of standard strength lager or cider contains 2 units.


We get dehydrated when we don’t drink enough fluid. One of the first signs of dehydration is feeling thirsty but you may notice other signs:

  • darker urine than usual or not passing much urine when you go to the toilet
  • headaches
  • feeling confused or irritable, or finding it hard to concentrate.

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about any of these symptoms.

External Resource

Eat Well, Your Way

Our new healthy eating resource, with advice to help you make small, practical steps towards a healthier diet.

More on this topic


​Eatwell Guide Booklet

The Eatwell Guide shows the proportions in which different types of foods are needed to have a well-balanced and healthy diet.


Vitamins & minerals

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that our body needs to work properly.



Most of us need to cut down on the sugar we consume, it's low in nutritional value and shouldn't be part of a healthy diet.



Two-thirds of us eat too much salt. Around 75% of salt we eat comes from everyday foods like bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals.



Too much fat, especially saturated fat, can increase the risk of heart disease.