March is National Nutrition Month! In recognition of this awareness month, we wanted to highlight a current trending topic in nutrition and give you the key takeaways.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Cover_Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Front cover of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025

December 29, 2020, marked the release of the 9th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Every 5 years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture come together to produce a set of science-based nutrition guidelines that become the centerpiece for U.S. policies, programs, and federally produced education materials. The Dietary Guidelines are also meant to serve as the basis for health professionals to guide patients and share messages with the consumer.

The Dietary Guidelines focus on dietary patterns, not individual nutrients or foods, and the key points are chosen based on common nutritional gaps. It provides recommendations on what to eat and drink to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and meet nutrient needs.

What’s Been Updated

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage making small changes towards healthier eating patterns and focus messaging around four major themes:

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense food and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
  4. Limit food and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

This is the first edition of the Dietary Guidelines that includes recommendations for under 2 years of age and includes specific guidance for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The emphasis on nutrition throughout the lifespan recognizes that nutritional needs change over time and that early food choices impact health and influence lifelong habits. Emphasis is placed on exclusively breastfeeding until 6 months old, when possible, and introducing allergen-containing foods, like peanuts, at six months.

It also includes more suggestions for chronic disease as more than half of Americans are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer, all of which are impacted by nutrition. Of note, the Dietary Guidelines are meant to serve for health promotion and disease prevention, not to treat chronic disease. MyPlate continues to be the consumer translation of the Dietary Guidelines, encouraging us to make half our plates fruits and vegetables, vary our protein routine, and make at least half our grains whole. Vegetable intake is broken down into dark green and red & orange vegetables to emphasize the variety of vitamins and minerals different colored produce provides.

What We Should Do About it

The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate together offer some actionable items towards a better diet:

  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. Evidence suggests that drinking even less than this may be better for health.
  • Reduce sugar intake to less than 10% of total calories, for age 2 and older. Children under 2 should have no added sugars. For example, for the person consuming 2,000 calories per day, added sugars should be less than 200 calories per day, or 50g added sugars (sugar provides 4 calories per gram). Again, less is better here since sugar doesn’t provide any nutrients, just added calories.
  • Saturated fat intake should also contribute less than 10% of calories per day. One method for limiting saturated fat is reducing the intake of meat and full-fat dairy. Instead, choosing mostly plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds can help you reach that goal while still consuming plenty of protein. Of note, most Americans eat more protein than they need! Remember, fat calories add up quicker: 200 calories from fat is only 22 grams (fat provides 9 calories per gram).
  • Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day; children under 14 years of age should eat less. When possible, choose fresh foods. If buying frozen, canned, or packaged foods, read nutrition facts labels for lower or sodium-free foods.
  • Choose nutrient-dense foods when possible. “Nutrient-dense” describes foods that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, or other nutritious benefits versus “empty calories” that lack nutritional value but may still have added sugars or fat. The Dietary Guidelines specifically recommend “vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat and sodium” as nutrient-dense foods.

With nutrition recommendations coming from every imaginable source these days, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 provides the opportunity to make science-backed health goals. Start simple by choosing one item you or your family could improve on and create small, stepwise goals to get closer to the recommended dietary patterns. For example, first add beans or lentils to a meat-centered meal, then substitute half the meat for a plant-based protein, and finally, reduce saturated fat intake even further by centering the meal around the beans and produce. Shape and share your goals with a registered dietitian nutritionist for support. Remember, “the benefits of healthy eating add up over time, bite by bite,” so “make every bite count!” To learn more about the Dietary GuidelinesClick here.

About the Author:
Melissa Majumdar, MS, RD, CSOWM, LDN, is a registered dietitian, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) national media spokesperson, and works at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta. She has been working from home and schooling from home since March 2020 and says she has had more failures than successes in this area but is happy to share her lessons learned.