The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently released the latest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These science-based recommendations provide guidance about what and how much to eat to meet nutrient needs for health, and to prevent chronic disease.
Although each version of the Dietary Guidelines adheres to a consistent message of healthy eating, the details in that message do evolve. As such, they’re updated every five years, to account for the latest nutrition research, recommendations from science advisors, and diet trends or attitudes among consumers.
Here’s a look at the major highlights of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
1. Recommendations for each stage of life. Instead of general one-size-fits-all advice, the latest guidelines include some specific recommendations by stage of life, such as:
- Infants and toddlers – aim to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months; introduce potentially allergenic foods within the first year; avoid foods with added sugar and those high in sodium.
- Children and adolescents – Optimize nutrition and physical activity during this time for growth and also to reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.
- Pregnant and lactating women – Adhere to the estimated changes in calorie needs; maximize foods high in folate, iron, choline, iodine; include 8-12 ounces of low mercury seafood each week.
- Older adults – Eat a nutrient-dense diet to reduce chronic disease risk; ensure adequate intake of protein and vitamin B12.
In addition to pointing out specific foods and nutrients that might be needed in greater or lesser amounts, the message here is that the foods you choose to eat, matter every day of your life. In fact, “Make Every Bite Count” is the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines’ call to action.
2. Four key quantitative recommendations. These are the same as the previous edition of the Dietary Guidelines, but they now include some age-related guidance:
- Everyone age two and older should limit foods with added sugar to less than 10% of calories per day. Infants and toddlers should not be given foods or beverages with added sugar.
- After the age of two, limit saturated fat to less than 10% of calories per day.
- Limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day – or less for those under the age of 14.
- For those who drink alcohol, limit consumption to two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
3. There is no one-size-fits-all diet pattern. The 2020-2025 guidelines acknowledge that this document is just a framework. It can and should be customized to take into account individual needs and preferences, as well as cultural and traditional foodways.
It also addresses the fact that many times food choices are based on one’s budget – but a healthy diet is still achievable, even on a tight budget. To support healthy eating with financial restrictions, the Dietary Guidelines lists resources appropriate to each life stage, such as:
- The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
- The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)
- Congregate Nutrition Services
- Home Delivered Nutrition Services
4. Your diet pattern matters more than individual foods and nutrients. Much like the previous versions of the Dietary Guidelines, there’s an emphasis on the diet pattern as a whole, instead of individual foods and nutrients. That’s an important message, because the average American diet scores 59 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index – a score of how closely one’s diet adheres to the Dietary Guidelines.
There is clearly much room for improvement in most American’s diets. The message here is that one bad day won’t ruin an overall healthy diet. Also, while short bursts of healthy eating are great – they won’t make up for a lifetime of unhealthy choices.
The Bottom Line
Many nutrition professionals would agree that there are a few things missing from the latest Dietary Guidelines, like advice about ultra-processed foods, or a stronger stance on sugar. Still, they do provide good information which helps form a strong backbone for a healthy diet – if people adopt it. That’s where our job comes in.
You can access the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines here. It’s full of useful information, nuggets and soundbites that every nutrition professional can use with patients, consumers, and the media.