The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly released a set of dietary guidelines every five years since 1980. It’s based on scientific evidence of health-promoting diets in the general U.S. population who are healthy, those at risk for diet-related diseases (such as heart disease, cancer and obesity), and those living with these diseases.
The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines were just released on December 28, 2020 with some major changes, including aspects of nutrition that have never been addressed before. Here’s a look at some of the major changes and updates to the latest dietary recommendations — including what’s stayed the same and why.
The Biggest Changes to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines
For the first time 40 years, the dietary guidelines provide dietary guidance for all stages of life from birth through older adulthood, including pregnancy and breast feeding. Now you can find guidelines and specific needs of infants and toddlers ages 0 to 24 months, including the recommended length of time to breastfeed exclusively (minimum of 6 months), when to introduce solids and which solids to introduce, and the recommendation to introduce peanut-containing foods to infants at high risk for peanut allergy between 4 to 6 months. These guidelines also recommend the nutrients and foods that women should eat during pregnancy and lactation in order to meet the nutrient needs of both themselves and their baby. Overall, there’s an emphasis that it’s never too early, or too late, to eat well.
The overall benchmarks of healthy eating, however, have largely remained the same across various editions of these guidelines — and that’s because the most basic, undisputed healthy eating principles (including encouraging nutrient-dense foods and limiting overconsumption of certain nutrients linked to disease and poor health outcomes) still stand after decades of research.
Four Key Recommendations
There are four nutrients or foods that most Americans get too much of: added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, and alcoholic beverages. The specific limits for each according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines are as follows:
- Limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day for anyone aged 2 years and older and avoid added sugars completely for infants and toddlers.
- Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2 years. (Related: Guide to Good vs. Bad Fats)
- Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day starting at age 2. That’s equivalent to one teaspoon of salt.
- Limit alcoholic beverages, if consumed, to 2 drinks per day or less for men and 1 drink per day or less for women. One drink portion is defined as 5 fluid ounces of wine, 12 fluid ounces of beer, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof liquor like vodka or rum.
Before this update was released, there was talk of further reducing the recommendations for added sugar and alcoholic beverages. Before any amendment, a committee of diverse food and medical experts reviews current research and evidence on nutrition and health (using data analysis, systematic reviews, and food pattern modeling) and releases a report. (In this case, the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.) This report acts as a sort of bulk expert recommendation, providing independent, science-based advice to the government as it helps develops the next edition of the guidelines.
The committee’s latest report, released in July 2020, made recommendations to cut back added sugar to 6 percent of total calories and to cut the maximum limit of alcoholic beverages for men to a maximum of 1 per day; however, the new evidence reviewed since the 2015-2020 edition wasn’t substantial enough to support changes to these specific guidelines. As such, the four guidelines listed above are the same as they were for the previous dietary guidelines released in 2015. However, Americans are still not meeting these above recommendations and research has linked overconsumption of alcohol, added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat to a variety of health consequences, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer, according to research.
Make Every Bite Count
The latest guidelines also included a call to action: “Make Every Bite Count with the Dietary Guidelines.” The aim is to encourage people to focus on choosing healthy foods and beverages that are rich in nutrients, while staying within their calorie limits. However, researchers have found that the average American scores 59 out of 100 in the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), which measures how closely a diet aligns with the dietary guidelines, meaning that they’re not aligned very well with these recommendations. Research shows that the higher HEI score you have, the better chance you can improve your health.
That’s why making food and beverage choices that are rich in nutrients should be your first choice, and shifting the mentality from “taking away bad foods” to “including more nutrient-dense foods” may help people make this change. The dietary guidelines recommends that 85 percent of the calories you eat each day should come from nutrient-rich foods, while only a small amount of calories (approximately 15 percent), are left for added sugars, saturated fat, and, (if consumed) alcohol. (Related: Is the 80/20 Rule the Gold Standard of Dietary Balance?)
Choose Your Own Individual Eating Pattern
The dietary guidelines don’t focus on one food being “good” and another being “bad.” It also doesn’t focus on how to optimize one meal or one day at a time; rather, it’s about how you combine foods and beverages throughout your life as an ongoing pattern that research has shown has the greatest impact on your health.
In addition, personal preferences, cultural backgrounds, and budget all play a role in how you choose to eat. The dietary guidelines purposely recommends food groups — not specific foods and beverages — to avoid being prescriptive. This framework enables people to make the dietary guidelines their own by choosing foods, beverages, and snacks to meet their own personal needs and preferences.