The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are just out in 2021 with an emphasis on lifelong health. The guidelines, updated every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are based on the latest research in nutrition science and serve as a basis for federal nutrition policy. They also help set the tone for how we should eat. The theme for this edition is “Make every bite count.” The new dietary guidelines recommend healthy eating patterns across the lifespan and offer advice on what to eat by stage of life, including, for the first time, guidance for babies and toddlers from birth to age 2.
The federal agencies recommend 4 basic guidelines:
- Follow a healthy diet at every life stage, from birth through adulthood. The guidelines offer specific information by stage of life.
- Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
- Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits.
- Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.
Here’s what they mean for you.
Watch Portion sizes
Three key dietary principles can help people achieve the Dietary Guidelines: meet nutritional needs primarily from foods and beverages; choose a variety of options from each food group; and pay attention to portion size.
As I’ve written extensively about healthy eating, portion sizes have increased in recent years, in parallel with rising obesity rates in the US. Portion sizes matter because large portions contain more calories than small portions and encourage us to eat more, usually without us realizing it. Paying attention to portion sizes helps keep our calories–and our body weight–in check. This is important as more than 70 percent of American adults are either overweight or obese.
Complicating this matter are shifting cultural norms that glamorize obesity such as the January issue of UK Cosmo. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do for your health this year. Being overweight is associated with a host of chronic diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. You don’t need to follow a rigid diet to maintain a healthy weight; creating healthy habits, making good food choices, and practicing portion control is key. Even if you are overweight and do need to lose weight, you should still accept yourself and not define yourself by your weight.
Enjoy more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains
The guidelines recommend a dietary pattern rich in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fats and sugar-sweetened foods. This eating pattern includes an array of colorful vegetables and fruits, beans, peas, lentils and other healthy starches, whole grains, vegetable oils, poultry, eggs, nuts, lean meats, fat-free or low-fat dairy. Dietary patterns rich in these foods are associated with positive health outcomes.
Limit added sugar
As the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines advised, Americans should consume less than 10% of calories from added sugars. The current guidelines also advise toddlers under 2 years old to avoid all added sugar. (Moms, it’s up to you!)
Added sugars make up on average 13 percent of our daily energy intake coming primarily from several foods: sweetened beverages, desserts and sweet snacks, coffee and tea (with their additions), candy and sugars, and breakfast cereals and bars. Eating too much added sugars can contribute to obesity and chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The sugars in fruit and dairy are healthy naturally occurring sugars and do not count as added sugar. So, fruit lovers don’t need to worry about the sugar in apples and berries. Be sure to read the labels of snacks. Crispy Green’s Crispy Fruit, for instance contains no added sugar, while other freeze-dried or dried fruit brands do.
The dietary guideline advisory committee last year had recommended lowering the limit on sugars to less than 6% of calories. However, the federal agencies said that the science did not yet confirm this recommendation.
Breastfeeding, food variety encouraged for babies and toddlers
For the first six months of life infants should be exclusively breastfed which can be continued through the first year of life. The guidelines advise that at six months old, parents can begin to introduce infants to nutrient-dense foods. Infants can also be introduced to potentially allergenic foods (such as eggs) along with complementary foods.
Go easy on saturated fat and alcohol
Like the previous dietary guidelines, the current guidelines advise less than 10% of calories daily from saturated fat, beginning at age 2, and no more than two alcoholic drinks a day or less for men, and one for women.
Saturated fats are found in red meat, fried foods, and full-fat dairy like whole milk cheese and butter. And of course, cream sauces should also be limited. The guidelines suggest shifting away from high-fat red meat to eating more seafood and incorporating more beans, peas and legumes.
The dietary guideline advisory committee had recommended (as I outlined in this 2020 story) lowering the limit on alcohol to no more than one drink for both men and women. However, like with added sugar, the federal agencies said that there was not enough conclusive scientific evidence to back up this recommendation. But…no one got heart disease from a deficiency of alcohol, so if you don’t drink, don’t start.
No Benefits to consuming foods high in added sugar
As a registered dietitian, I commend the agencies for offering guidance for each stage of the life, including infants and toddlers. This is most welcome for families and new moms. I like the focus on “Make every bite count,” addressing the importance of portion control and staying within calorie limits… I was disappointed, however, that the guidelines didn’t include the committee recommendations on added sugar and alcohol—namely, to reduce added sugar to 6 percent of total calories and to limit alcohol to 1 drink a day for men. There are no benefits to consuming foods high in added sugar so less is best. And as for alcohol, less is probably best as well. After all, no one got heart disease from a deficiency of alcohol. You can access the full report of the Dietary Guidelines here.
–Lisa R. Young
Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN, is an internationally recognized nutritionist, portion size expert, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Dr. Young is the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at Time and The Portion Teller Plan. She has been counseling clients for more than 20 years, blogs at www.drlisayoung.com, and inspires her community to make healthy food and lifestyle choices. Read her most recent Smart Lifebites story: “What Can Superfoods Do For Your Health.”