The 5 food groups: My simple plan for a whole foods, low-fat, plant-based diet

Daily – no, several times a day actually – I receive email questions about how to get started on eating for plant-based health and fitness.   People see the changes that I have gone through and note my unbridled enthusiasm for a whole-foods, low fat, plant-based diet.  It has been the cornerstone of my own personal transformation, so no wonder, and I am happy to share.

Always seeking the simplest way to help you get started, I realize my plant-based diet is really organized on a 5 food group plan:  veggies, starchies, fruit, beans, and nuts and seeds.

The 5 Food Groups

1)  Veggies:  green and yellow, high water content vegetables.  These are the ones you recognize as more perishable:  leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, crispy colorfuls.

2)  Starchies:  this includes starchy vegetables as well as whole grains.  Potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, peas, winter squash, rice, oats, quinoa, pasta – the list is endless.

3)  Fruit

4)  Beans and legumes:  lentils, beans, dried peas, pulses. Officially, these are starchies. Yet with a higher protein content  than starchy vegetables, I view them somewhat differently.  It is actually easy to get more protein than we need on a plant-based diet.  5 – 10% of our calories from protein is sufficient and more than that just puts stress on the body as it tries to expel the excess. Protein can’t be stored like carbohydrate or fat.  About a cup from the beans and legumes group a day is a good amount to aim for so that you get all the advantages of nutrition and satiety.

5)  Nuts and seeds: 1/2 – 1  oz. a day, depending on your goals.  They can slow you down if you are trying to lose weight, they can help you gain if that’s what you are looking for.

How the 5 food groups pan out on the plate

Play along with me here.  Let go of all the ideas you have about ‘portions’ and the 4 food groups when the dairy and meat lobbies staked their claim on the food group scene with their own categories.   Got it?  OK.

Here’s how the 5 food groups play themselves out on my plate.   If I look back on a day of good eating, and I could pile everything I ate on a big platter, here’s approximately what it would look like:

  • 1/2 of the platter would be filled with the veggies
  • 1/2 half of the platter would be filled with the starchies
  • on top of all of it would be a cup of beans
  • and 2 – 3 pieces of fruit
  • a Tablespoon or so of nuts or seeds

See how easy that is?  So how do you build that from the first meal of the day?  Again, I’ll share my pattern.

Breakfast:  Large bowl of whole grain cereal with berries, banana, peaches, or other juicy fruit on top.  Sometimes pancakes or waffles.

Lunch:  Large bowl of soup with vegetables, starchies and beans.  In warmer weather,  soup shifts out for salad. Veggie sandwich with hummus, tomato, or other vegetables on whole grain bread.

Dinner:  Plateful of 50/50 starchies, including beans and legumes, and veggies.  This could be a heap of brown rice topped topped with, for example,  a bright legume curry or black beans and salsa, with steamed or stir-fried (without oil) vegetables with a simple sauce .

Sometimes I’ll get fancy and make a casserole, lasagna, or tacos/enchiladas for dinner.  Usually simple fare, which suits me just fine.

The beauty of the way I eat is that I get all of my essential nutrients (with the addition of vitamin b12) and stay trim and energetic without counting, weighing, and measuring.  My ideal, as I’ve told you before (see My McDougall Diet Failure and Plant-Based Passsionista philosophy and story), is to eat according to appetite and stay slim, without obsessing and calculating every gram of macronutrient.

What if it’s too scary to let go of all the controls?

If you are used to the controls of counting, weighing, and measuring, and find it too scary to let go of it all at once, I understand.  We are frightened of what would happen if we let our bodies do the measuring.  It’s a shift into what I call body-controlled eating that we crave yet of which we can be terrified.

In that case, and you feel like simplifying to 5 food groups is enough to help you get started and you’ll tackle the ‘body controlled’ part later, no problem, I’ll break that down for you.

1)  Veggies:  7 + servings.  One serving is 1 cup raw leafy or 1/2 cup steamed/stir fried.  By the time I’ve had veggies in salad or soup for lunch and more salad and steamed veggies for dinner, plus noshing on raw veggies as I prepare meals, I’m easily in for 7 – 10 + servings a day.

2)  Starchies: 7+ servings.  1/2 cup of cooked whole grains or one small potato = 1 serving.  By the time I’ve had 1  1/2 cups of oatmeal for breakfast, potatoes or squash as a base for my soup at lunch, sandwich, and pile of brown rice or some type of potato with vegetables for dinner, I’m easily in for 8 – 10 + servings for the day.

3)  Fruit:  2 – 3 servings.  1 on my morning grains, another at some point during the day or perhaps as dessert.

4)  Beans and legumes:  2 servings.  One serving is 1/2 cup cooked.  Usually about 1 cup/day.  Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.  Remember, I’m not measuring. In soup at lunch or with grains at dinner, sometimes mashed into a burger or as a spread via hummus.

5)  Nuts and seeds: Up to 1 oz/day.   Usually 1 Tablespoon of ground flax seed on my morning cereal, sometimes walnuts, sometimes in the form of tahini for a richer dressing.

If I had to figure out the calories in this content, here’s what I would do.

Veggies : 30 – 50 calories per cup, many lots less such as leafy greens

Starchies : approximately 200 calories/cup

Fruits: approximately 60 calories per serving

Beans:  approximately 100 calories per 1/2 cup

Nuts and seeds:  approximately 50 calories per Tablespoon.

Thus, 10 veggies = 350 calories, 10 starchies = 1.000 calories, 2 fruits = 120 calories, 1 cup beans = 200 calories, and 1 T nuts and seeds = 50 calories for a total of  1720 – 2000 calories.

I figure I eat about 2,00o calories/day, depending on the caloric variation within the veggies, fruits, and starchies.  About 10 – 15 % calories from protein, the same from fat.

What about condiments?

This leaves me a little wiggle room for condiments.  These I call actually call ‘decorations’ because they are just that.  The more your tastes become realigned to whole, natural foods, the less you need the decorations.  But I enjoy my own flavor agents just like anyone else.  Some nonfat sauces on my rice and veggies, dressing on salads, mustard on my sandwiches, maple syrup on my hotcakes, and ketchup on my veggie burger.

Here’s how I figure this in.  I am mindful of ‘decoration’ calories being no more than about 5% of my total for the day.  At this low rate, they aren’t going to cause me any problems. Yet I know if I go overboard on them, they can become problematic with bumping up empty calories.  5% of 2,000 is 100 calories.  That’s a Tablespoon of maple syrup and a few shakes of fat-free salad dressing or veg sauce.

I am not telling you what to eat

Note that I am simply sharing with you how I eat, grounded in the principles of Plant-Based Nutrition as studied in my Plant-Based Nutrition Certification Course via Cornell University as well as intensive studies in my role as Fitness Expert for the McDougall Health and Medical Center.  This includes hours of study at the McDougall Advanced Nutrition Study Weekends over the past few years.

 If you want to lose weight

Simply up the veggies and wiggle down fat content.  Be more prudent about processed foods. This is exactly what I do if my weight has nudged up a couple of pounds or there is a little extra fluff around the middle from too many feast days with higher fat foods or too free a hand with the ‘decorations’.

If you want to gain weight

Eat more  concentrated calories, such as processed whole grains (whole grain bread) and smoothies (processed fruit and greens).  In these edibles, the fiber has been disrupted so it is easier to take in more calories if desired.  You may also be able to tolerate more high fat whole foods, such as avocados, nuts, and olives, if your health allows.

The point is, keep it simple.

As long as you follow these guidelines, you can liberate yourself from counting, weighing, and measuring madness.  Don’t addle your brain. It frees up more band width for reading (or writing!) that book, taking that hike, painting that painting…you get the idea.

Thanks so much for coming by. Please join me also on facebook.

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    • Lani

      Thanks Wendy, I appreciate you and that you stopped in to leave a note.

  1. Hi Lani, once again i have a question for you, being that Dr McDougall encourages a very low fat vegan diet , which is how i eat , but i do have traditional rolled oats or steal cut oats every morning and i do like to have them raw with my fruit and soy milk or soy yopgurt, all no fat milk or yogurt of course,. Oats are very healthy for you i know and Dr Mc does have them in his programe and seems to encourage them but was wondering how they fit into a low fat diet when really reading the box they are not low fat? thanks Lani cheers Anna

    • Lani

      Hey Anna, My most common breakfast is steel-cut oats. Think about it this way. I did a quick check and find steel cut oats 160 calories per 1/4 cup, with 3 grams of fat. This means 27 calories from fat so they are at about 17% fat.

      But are you eating only steel cut oats all day? Of course not. If you are not eating expelled oils, nuts and seeds, avocados and olives, and most of the rest of your diet is starchies and veggies and fruits and beans, then your percentage of dietary calories from fat is low. The no-fiber calories in the yogurt and milk would be more of a concern if you are looking for ways to wiggle calories.

      My oats are cooking as we speak! Thanks for your post.

  2. Thanks for all the tips Lani! I love how you stress to keep it simple. I have been enjoying a plant-based diet for about four months and simple seems to be best.

    • Lani

      Aggie, my pleasure. I always appreciate it when someone simplifies things for me, too. It really helps you clear the deck and the cobwebs, doesn’t it? I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  3. Wow, when you put it like that…you make it look so easy!

    Thanks for cutting through all the information we get bombarded with and making it simple, once again.

    Also loved your report on the debate. Will you be posting more articles about the retreat you recently attended?


  4. Lani

    Jennifer, I’m glad it works for you – that was my intention, to cut through the chaos! It’s easy to get lost in the details, and I think it’s just because we are so serious about looking for answers. But we can get lost with seeing the trees at the expense of the forest. And though each tree builds the forest, it’s the fight over those trees that gets us bogged down and stuck.

    Glad you liked the debate and yes I’ll be posting more about the Advanced Study Weekend. Are you coming to the Teleclass this week? I’ll be plowing straight through my notebook!

  5. Hi Lani, thanks once again , yep you sure make it seem so sensible when you put pen to paper and yes the oats are the only fats i would eat all day, the rest of the day is veggies and grains and no fat soy milk. Also Lani all the fantasric things you post to us all is there any way it can be made printer freindly? i have scrolled up and down and found twitter etc, but cant find anywhere i can print all the information you send and would love to add it to my scrapbook to keep me on track and refer to when i need reassuring, thansk Chees Anna

    • Lani

      Hi Anna, glad you like the article and I appreciate your feedback. I’m looking into a plugin that would allow for printing. I’ll let you know!


    • Hey anna, you could always just highlight everything Lani has written and then right-click and then go to “Print…”

      It will print all of the page(including comments) unless you click for it to print “selection only” under Page Range.

      • Lani

        Ben, thanks for sharing the tips. We did install a plugin for printing but it seems to need a tweak or two. Stay tuned!

        BTW Ben, when I do as you suggest I don’t get a ‘print’ option – what browser are you using? With firefox it doesn’t come up as an option – ?

      • Thanks for this tip!

        • Lani

          Sure Gina, glad you came likey!

  6. Hey Lani, I’m using Internet Explorer. For Mozilla Firefox all you have to do is highlight whatever you wrote and then hit ctrl + P. (which will open the print dialog and again make sure to hit selection)

    • To clarify…

      Hold ctrl and then press p.

    • Lani

      Thanks for the tips, Ben!

  7. Thanks Lani for posting your example of a healthy balanced lfwfpb meal plan. I really appreciate that you share this healthy lifestyle with so many people! I just wanted to point out (clarify) that 1-2 oz of nuts/seeds is roughly 1/4 cup (4 Tbsps) to 1/2 cup (8 Tbsps) in volume. In your example of what you normally consume, you usually use about a Tablespoon of seeds or nuts per day, which is actually approximately 1/4 oz. of nut/seed consumption per day, substantially lower than the 1-2 oz in the five food groups recommendations.

    • Lani

      Excellent point Marcella, and an important one. You’re right and I know that but it escaped me in the writing process! I appreciate, and will adjust accordingly.


  8. Ive been trying to find the answer to this question, and can’t find a clear-cut answer, so maybe u can help, Lani!

    What is the exact difference between McDougall, Fuhrman, and Esselstyn?

    Some other questions, if u dont mind me asking:

    -how much fat (%) is recommended for the low-fat plant-based diet? How much protein (%)? Carbs (%)?

    -Should soy be avoided? if not, why is it allowed and what are brands of tofu that wont cause endocrine issues?

    -Any tips for those who need to be gluten-free and have trouble digesting beans/legumes?

    -Nutritional yeast: healthy or not ideal and why? If u use this, how do u use it?

    -Food combining rules: fact or hoax…why?

    -Have u tried Food for Life Brown Rice tortillas? Are these healthy?

    Thanks SO much and I love ur blog!!!


  9. Do u have any healthy burger recipes (Gluten-free, soy-free, easy to digest)? The stuff at the stores are SO processed and not too healthy. thanks!

      • Thanks Lani!
        I cant eat oats, either, even if gluten-free (same with buckwheat….allergies). Would rice or sweet potato work?

        Not to be a pain, but if u have time, can u answer the questions above? Thanks!


        • Lani

          Rice and potatoes a great idea. Sweet potatoes would be perfect. I’ve answered the list of questions in a blog post today!

  10. Lani –

    I did sign up for your email updates but haven’t received anything. Have checked spam/junk folder and nothing there, then got wondering if you have sent out any lately.


    • Lani Muelrath

      Hi Greg!

      Yes, a newsletter went out last Friday. I checked my mail service at is not listed! So, what I’ve done is entered your email there which will send you an email. Inside that email is a confirmation link that you must click. Let me know if you don’t find it – and in the meantime, whitelist Keep me posted and thanks for your note!

      • I forgot to respond, yes I am now receiving your newsletter.


        • Lani Muelrath

          Thanks for letting me know Greg. Cheers!

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  1. Vogue Article on 7-Year-Old Girl on a Diet Sparks Controversy - [...] expert Lani Muelrath recently detailed it beautifully in an article outlining what she calls The 5 food groups: My …

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