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The Caribbean 6 Food Groups

by Janelle Zakour RD

 Source: Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute

Source: Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute

It always boggles my mind whenever I speak about the Caribbean Food Groups to both the youth and adults of Trinidad and Tobago. About 90% of Trinbagonians claim to have never seen this poster before. How is it that we have our own model of nutrition in the Caribbean and yet so little is publicly known about it?

But before you continue further, if you have not already read the blog post on Food = Nutrients, I highly recommend that you do so before reading further I mention which food groups contain which macro and micronutrients!

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The Caribbean 6 Food Groups

As we’ve covered the basics in the previous blog post, now we can get into the good stuff. Food groups are categorised based on their primary energy and nutrient profile.

The objective today is to introduce the concept of the official food guide used in the English-speaking Caribbean. At first glance, it looks like a simple pie chart segmented into 6.
We have the:

  1. Staples,

  2. Legumes,

  3. Foods from Animals,

  4. Fruits,

  5. Vegetables and

  6. Fats & Oils.

When I was a dietetic intern, it never really occurred to me that Caribbean eating was traditionally a plant-based one. The staple group and the legume group are the largest segments in the wheel, signifying their importance in the Caribbean diet. The foods from animals and fats and oils groups are the smallest segments meaning that even though we should include them as part of our diet, we should not centre our meals around them.

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  1. The Staples group is the largest segment of the food groups as it provides the bulk of our energy source in the form of carbohydrates. Choosing complex carbohydrates ensures a rich source of dietary fibre which helps to keep our tummies full and intestines healthy. Here are some Trinbagonian staple sources:
    Starchy Fruit - peewah, breadfruit, green fig, plantain, chataigne (breadnut), sago (palm starch)
    Root Tubers - sweet potato, dasheen, yam, cush cush, cassava, eddoes, topi tambo, root starches (tapioca, arrowroot)
    Grains - brown rice, oats, barley, corn, quinoa, wheat, millet, farro, spelt
    Products - breads, pastas, crackers, bake, cereals, pancakes, waffles
    Most individuals need between 5 to 8 servings of this group per day. The serving sizes will differ with each staple food so it is important to be informed of these. Generally, a serving of these foods is 1/2 cup or 1 level potspoon of a cooked item like rice or pasta.

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2. The Legumes group comes right after the Staples. This group provides us with a combination of different macronutrients:
a) Peas and Beans - contain protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre
This includes chickpeas/channa, kidney beans, pinto beans, pigeon peas, lentils, soybeans (the only complete protein in this group), black-eyed peas, lima beans
b) Nuts and Seeds - contain protein, fats and dietary fibre (even though these are classified as legumes, some dietitians count them towards overall fat servings especially if an individual is on a low-fat diet).
This includes peanuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews and pine nuts. Seeds include pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, chia and hemp.
c) Products - tofu, tempeh, bean burger patties
A good rule of thumb is to aim for 2 servings of this group per day. A serving of peas or beans is 1/2 cup or 1 level potspoon but the servings of nuts and seeds will differ. It is best to choose dried peas and beans and cook them at home as some tinned options can be processed with salt or sugar. However, the tinned options are great for convenience once rinsed well. There is even the option of cooked and frozen beans in the freezer section of some groceries. Legumes are considered incomplete proteins and should be paired with a grain or grain product from the staples group to become a complete protein e.g. red beans and rice, peanut butter on wholewheat toast etc.

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3. The Foods from Animals group is next. If you’ve noticed, this group is smaller than the Legume group. Animal protein is meant to complement a meal, not be based around it. This group gives us protein for muscle building, fats for satiety and energy as well as iron and some B-complex vitamins especially B12.
a) Lean Meats - chicken, fish, shellfish, crustaceans
b) Fattier Meats - beef, goat, pork, lamb duck
c) Dairy - low-fat milk (fresh, UHT, powdered), hard and soft cheeses, yogurt, kefir, fortified soy beverages
d) Eggs
It is best to avoid or limit the consumption of processed meats like salami, bologna, hot dogs etc. as these contain very high levels of sodium and can be very high in fats. When choosing tinned fish or meats, opt for those tinned in water instead of oil. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends the consumption of 1 to 2 servings of oily fish per week which is rich in the omega-3s EPA and DHA*. A serving size of animal protein is 1 oz or the size of a matchbox. An egg for example, is 1 serving. Overall, most Caribbean people need between 3 to 6 servings of animal protein and 1 to 2 servings of milk products per day.

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4. Up next is Fruits. We are fortunate to have an abundance of local fruit available! Fruit give us carbohydrates for energy and some fruits contain fair amounts of dietary fibre. The chemicals that give fruit their different colours are called phytonutrients and each phytonutrient has a different benefit in the body. Consuming a rainbow of colours ensures that you’re getting these phytonutrients as well as a range of other essential micronutrients like Vitamin C and potassium.
Red - watermelon, pommecythere, governor plums, West Indian cherries, cashew fruit, miracle fruit
Orange - paw paw, mango, mamey apple, king orange, canteloupe, guava, portugal
Yellow - ripe pommecythere, canistel, penny piece, balata, pineapple, Ortanique oranges, yellow melon, jackfruit, carambola/five finger, passion fruit
Green - dongs, plums, pommecythere, honeydew melon
Purple - jamun, caimate, black sapote, rolling cherries, purple dragonfruit, soapbush berries
White - silk figs, lacatan bananas, sugar apples, cashima, soursop, rambutan, lychee, mangosteen, sugar apple
Most individuals need 2 to 3 servings of fruit per day. While they do contain high levels of sugars, they also contain very high levels of vitamins and minerals. Some of our local fruits like West Indian cherries (acerola) and guava have some of the highest concentrations of Vitamin C in the world. The serving sizes of different fruits will vary according to their overall energy content.

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5. Then we have Vegetables which are an important source of many nutrients, including potassium, fibre, folate and vitamins A, E and C. We can categorise these further into:
Non-Starchy - cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, melongene, ochro, christophene, asparagus bean/bodi, string beans, celery, onions, garlic, tomatoes (though botanically a fruit)
Leafy Greens - pakchoi, spinach, amaranth/bhagi, lettuce, kale, mustard greens, watercress, dasheen/callaloo leaves, parsley, seasoning (shadon beni, Spanish thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary etc.)
Higher Sugar - pumpkin, squash, beets, carrots
We need at least 3 servings of vegetables per day. A general guideline for vegetable servings are 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw. Greens and non-starchy veggies are more or less considered ‘free’ foods as long as no additional fat is added. It is recommended to not to go over the suggested servings per day for the sweeter vegetables.

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6. Finally we have the Fats and Oils group. As you can see, it is the smallest segment in the pie chart as it is our most energy dense macronutrient. There are different types of fats as listed below. We should limit the amount of saturated fats in our diet as it can raise our LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Monounsaturated fats - avocado, olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, almonds, cashews, ackee
Polyunsaturated fats - walnut oil, corn oil, flaxseed oil, safflower oil, vegetable oil, margarine, mayonnaise
Saturated fats - coconut oil, palm oil, coconut cream, butter, ghee, beef tallow, lard
People get upset when I say that a serving of avocado is 1 oz or a thin slice. Even though this fatty fruit is bursting with potassium and other micronutrients… it is still a fat. It can still be part of a healthy meal though! I am a huge advocate for low-fat cuisine meaning that little oil is used in the cooking process but you can add other nutritious fats such as avocado, olives, nuts and seeds to complement a meal.
There’s one bad fat that you should avoid, though: trans fats. They have no nutritional value and are harmful to your health. They’re often found in fried foods, processed snacks, and baked goods.

*Sources of the Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA include breast milk, oysters and fatty fish including mackerel, salmon, bluefush, mullet, sablefish, menhaden, anchovy, herring, lake trout, sardines and tuna.

**There are some fish that are relatively high in mercury and these include golden snapper, swordfish, king mackerel (king fish), shark and tuna. Low mercury fish include cod, haddock, pollock, salmon, sole and tilapia.

Sources include:
Whitney, Ellie, Sharon Rady Rolfes. ‘Understanding Nutrition’, 11th Edition. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.
CFNI ‘Caribbean Food Groups’