Weighing In: What are exchanges?

Heather Reese Health Guide
  • Dear Heather: What does it mean when people say they are "counting exchanges?"


    Dear MyDietExercise.com community member: Weight control is a simple equation of calories in versus calories out. But we all know that counting those calories can be overwhelming.


    When you're dealing with numbers in the hundreds, it's easy to lose count. That is why many weight loss programs have you count servings or "exchanges" instead of calories. Many people find it easier to track smaller numbers.



    Quality of food is just as important and quantity



    No matter what you're counting, it's important to pay attention to the quality of the foods you are eating. While a calorie is a calorie, it's best to get them from a wide variety of healthy foods. For this reason, I am a fan of using exchanges instead of counting calories. This method was once widely used by people with diabetes to help control blood sugar but it is also very useful for people who want to lose weight. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans uses this method to outline how to follow a well-balance, healthy diet.

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    However, even when counting exchanges you still need to make judgment calls about which foods in each group are healthier. For example, the Dietary Guidelines recommend getting at least 3 servings of your grains/starches from whole grain sources, which are considered healthier than enriched grains like white bread, rice or pasta. Along those same lines, they advocate getting your fruit exchanges from the actual fruit rather than fruit juice, which is lower in fiber.


    How do I count exchanges?


    When you are following a diet based on exchanges, you focus on consuming a certain number of servings from each food group over the course of the day. The number of exchanges you consume from each food group is determined by your recommended daily calorie intake level. So this method takes calories into consideration; you just don't have to count them!


    By counting exchanges, you can be sure you are consuming a well-balanced diet consisting of foods from all the food groups. For example, someone following a 1,600 calorie diet would have 3 fruit exchanges, 4 vegetable exchanges, 5 grain/starch exchanges, 5 Meat and bean exchanges 3 milk product exchanges and 5 fat exchanges daily.


    What is an exchange?


    In order to count exchanges, you need to know what each exchange is equivalent to. So, I've provided a quick list of each food group and what 1 serving or exchange is.



    • ½ cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit
    • 1 small banana, apple, orange or peach
    • ½ medium grapefruit
    • 1 large plum
    • ¼ cup of dried fruit
    • ½ cup of fruit juice


    • ½ cup of cut-up raw of cook vegetables
    • 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables
    • ½ cup of vegetable juice


    • 1 slice of bread
    • 1 cup of dry cereal
    • ½ cup cooked rice, pasta or cereal

    Meat and Beans

    • 1 ounce of cooked lean meats, poultry or fish
    • 1 egg
    • ¼ cup of cooked dry beans or tofu
    • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
    • ½ ounce of nuts or seeds

    Milk Products

    • 1 cup of low-fat/fat-free milk or yogurt
    • 1 ½ ounces of low-fat or fat-free natural cheese
    • 2 ounces of low-fat or fat-free processed cheese


    • 1 tablespoon of low-fat mayonnaise
    • 2 tablespoons of light salad dressing
    • 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil


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    Your calorie level and therefore the number of exchanges you should eat each day depends on your age, height and weight. Seek out the assistance of a local dietitian who can help you determine how many calories - and therefore exchanges of each food group - you should be eating. If you don't have access to a dietitian, the mypyramid.gov website can provide you with the same information.

Published On: October 12, 2007