Author: Christian Maino Vieytes, Doctoral Student, Division of Nutritional Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Recently, The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in the United States Department of Agriculture recently the 9th iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Guidelines established in the DGA are intended for use as recommendations for the American public to follow. They establish U.S. food policy that dictates how several federal programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP—colloquially known as “food stamps”) and MyPlate (1). Though the guidelines seldom change drastically, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, established by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), convenes every five years to assess new and changing landscapes of scientific knowledge on nutrition and disease. The intent is to highlight dietary patterns and considerations linked to a healthy lifestyle and minimize the risks of diet-induced conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Guidelines are made for the general population across the entire lifespan and population-specific recommendations are provided for infants & toddlers, children & adolescents, adults, pregnant & lactating women, and older adults. Critically, the guidelines emphasize dietary patterns and foods, not nutrients themselves (2). We now shift and discuss what the recommendations say and examine any substantial changes that have been made since the last version was released in 2015.
Exploring the recommendations
Guideline 1: Follow a Healthy Pattern at Every Life Stage
The DGA 2020-2025 states that a healthy dietary pattern “consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits”. A healthful dietary pattern is defined in the DGA as one that contains the following foods in recommended amounts and within calorie limits:
- Vegetables (all types)
- Fruits (mainly whole fruits)
- Grain (At least half should be whole-grain)
- Dairy (including calcium-fortified soy milk)
- Protein (including plant-derived and animal-derived lean options)
The new edition of MyPlate now recommends moving away from full-fat dairy and towards low-fat or plant-based alternatives, such as soy milk.
The guidelines once again emphasize that “going on a diet” is not a solution for overweight/obesity or preventing illness. Embracing a healthy lifestyle change that follows throughout life is the only viable approach to healthy eating.
Guideline 2: Customize and Enjoy Food and Beverage Choices to Reflect Personal Preferences, Cultural Traditions, and Budgetary Considerations
This novel guideline accentuates the idea that a healthy dietary pattern should not be a burden. Culture is interwoven into foods and cuisine. Economic factors may preclude some from obtaining certain foods. Personal preferences may lure you away from consuming particular foods and towards others. All of these factors need to be considered when formulating a plan according to the DGA 2020-2025. The DGA contains examples (using graphs, pictures, and other graphics) demonstrating how the DGA is tailored to your needs, constraints, and wants.
Guideline 3: Focus on Meeting Food Group Needs with Nutrient-Dense Foods and Beverages and Stay Within Calorie Limits
Another key aspect of the guidelines maintained for multiple editions is that nutrients be primarily from whole foods. When one follows a healthy dietary pattern, nutrient-dense food consumption is high, alleviating the need for supplementation of vitamins and minerals. However, this may not be true for certain nutrients. The DGA lists potassium, fiber, calcium, and vitamin D as nutrients of “public health concern for under-consumption”. Obtaining vitamin D from diet alone is difficult, which is why healthcare professionals may recommend supplementation of this critical nutrient. Recommendations for the remaining nutrients are met by shifting to a wholesome diet that encourages variety and consumption of nutrient-dense foods.
Guideline 4: Limit Foods and Beverages Higher in Added Sugars, Saturated Fat, and Sodium, and Limit Alcoholic Beverages
The new 2015-2020 Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat and added sugar intakes to less than 10% of one’s total caloric intake and minimizing alcohol intake (one drink or less per day for women and two drinks or less per day for men). In contrast to previous guidelines, the new guidelines now also recommend lowering trans-fat and cholesterol intake to a level that is as low as possible, but that does not compromise nutritional adequacy.
Dietary Recommendations for Infants 0-24 months included
For the first time in its history, the DGA 2020-2025 includes dietary recommendations for infants between 0-24 months. Breastfeeding guidelines recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of life. Formula recommendations and recommendations concerning the introduction of potentially allergenic foods are now included in the guidelines. Therefore, the DGA 2020-2025 provides guidance to expecting and current parents across the U.S. on the nutritional requirements and milestones of their infants and toddlers.
The DGA 2020-2025 shares significant similarities to previous dietary guidelines’ editions with some notable exceptions. Overall, the DGA stresses a dietary pattern that prioritizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and dairy while minimizing consumption of certain nutrients (such as added sugars, trans-fats, and cholesterol), foods, and beverages, such as alcohol. Infants 0-24 months now have their own set of recommendations included in the guidelines. The DGA 2020-2025 Guidelines are readable and include many pictures and graphics to accompany and aid understanding. Beyond its policy implications, the DGA is an essential and easy-to-use learning tool for Americans wanting to navigate the arena of healthy eating.
Read the 2020-2025 DGA (PDF)
- DeSalvo KB, Olson R, Casavale KO. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2016 Feb 2;315(5):457.
- Mozaffarian D, Ludwig DS. Dietary Guidelines in the 21st Century—a Time for Food. JAMA. 2010 Aug 11;304(6):681.
- Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 [Internet]. 2021. Available from: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
Photo by Jack Sparrow from Pexels.