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Understanding the Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020

You’ve probably heard the saying, “You are what you eat.”

It’s true. The foods and beverages we consume not only help to fuel our bodies, but they also give us the nutrients we need to function. How we eat over time can also affect our overall health and body weight. In fact, lifestyle habits that you can change—for example eating certain foods and not exercising—increase your chance of developing cardiovascular disease. But how do you know what to eat and what to avoid?

There are many steps you can take to educate yourself. To start, learn how to read food labels, control portion sizes, or even talk to a dietitian or nutritionist. You can also refer to the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which offers information about how to make healthy choices to help prevent chronic disease and enjoy a healthy diet.

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services together issue new recommendations to keep pace with the latest nutrition research. These guidelines aim to offer the best, most up-to-date advice based on the science at hand and sometimes respond to trends.

What Do Guidelines Do?

The Dietary Guidelines are mainly for policymakers and nutrition and health professionals to use to help promote a healthy diet for kids and adults. The chief goal is to improve health and lower the chances that people develop chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The recommendations give Americans a general blueprint for healthy eating and good nutrition. They also shape health policies and programs, as well as the types of foods included in the National School Lunch Program and other federally funded initiatives.

Nutrition and Heart Health Go Hand in Hand

About 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes.

About 1 in 2 American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. These include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Some cancers
  • Poor bone health
  • More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth  are overweight or obese

What are Some Key Recommendations? 

Below are some of the highlights from the new Dietary Guidelines. As always, it is important to talk with your health care professional about your health and diet.

❱❱ Adopt a healthy eating pattern for a lifetime.

Not surprisingly, the guidelines advise eating a mostly plant-based diet loaded with fruits and vegetables in all three of their key recommendations for a healthy U.S. dietary pattern, a vegetarian pattern, and a Mediterranean-style pattern. They include a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods including a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and optionally seafood, lean meats, poultry, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. 

The reason is that you don’t eat food groups or nutrients in isolation, so “the totality of the diet is what needs to be considered as that is an overall eating pattern.” All dietary components work together to promote health. The authors offer examples of healthy eating plans including the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diet. 

Key takeaway: All food and beverage choices matter. It is best to choose a healthy eating pattern that supports your personal calorie limit to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

❱❱ Efforts to help shift to healthier eating should fit with a person’s life and environments.

You should adapt a healthy eating pattern to fit your life. Take into account your personal, cultural, and traditional preferences. The guidelines also acknowledge that the setting where you eat or obtain food matters because it can influence the choices available. For example, your selection may be limited to what is served in school or work cafeterias, or whether you have access to a fresh food markets. 

Key takeaway: When you talk with your health care professional or nutritionist about how to follow a healthier diet overall, make sure to share information about your preferences and access to healthy foods.

❱❱ Too much saturated fat is bad for your health. 

Saturated fats can increase cholesterol levels and clog arteries. There are some easy ways to swap out saturated fats for more healthful fats – for example use olive and vegetable-based oils instead of butter. Prepared foods, especially those with certain meats and cheese are common sources of excess saturated fat. 

Key takeaway: Saturated fats should make up no more than 10% of calories each day.

❱❱ Keep sodium low.

Too much sodium, mostly consumed as salt, has been linked to high blood pressure and stroke, fluid retention and other problems. Most Americans consume too much sodium, which is often hidden in many processed foods or by using the salt shaker too much. 

Key takeaway: Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day (less than a teaspoon of salt). If you have high blood pressure, are 51 and older or have other health problems, you may benefit from limiting your sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. Try not to add salt before tasting your food.

❱❱ Limit added sugars.

There is growing evidence that too much added sugar is harmful. Try to limit sugar-packed beverages, which account for nearly half (47%) of all added sugars in the U.S. diet. Water is the best go-to. Added sugars are also found in many processed foods, sweets and prepared foods. 

Key takeaway: Added sugars should account for fewer than 10% of daily calories. That means if your goal is to stay at 2,000 calories a day, only 200 or fewer should be from added sugars. 

- 1 gram of sugar = 4 calories
- 4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 soda/day = averages 40 grams of sugar = 10 teaspoons of sugar= 160 calories

❱❱ Don’t forget to exercise. 

The guidelines also include recommendations for getting routine aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening activities.

What is a Healthy Eating Pattern? 

Most Americans can benefit from adopting healthier eating patterns. The guidelines suggest following a healthy eating pattern over time to help support a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease.” But what does that mean exactly?

According to the report, a healthy eating plan should include:

  • A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas) 
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits 
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains 
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages 
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products 
  • Oils  

It should limit: Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium

“Healthy eating patterns and regular physical activity can help people achieve and maintain good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease throughout all stages of the lifespan.”—Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020

8 Ways to Make Good Nutrition Easier

1. Choose wisely 

Be mindful about choosing heart-healthy foods. For example, try to eat more:

  • Plant-based diets low in fat, salt and added sugars 
  • High fiber and whole grains 
  • Lean protein 
  • Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (flaxseed, salmon and other fish, certain oils and nuts)

2. Read food labels 

The labels on the side of food and beverage packaging provide a lot of useful information about the nutritional content, including calories, sodium, cholesterol, fat, sugars and key vitamins per serving. 

3. Mind your portions 

Many of us eat too much without really knowing it. Portions at restaurants—even the size of bagels, baked goods and other prepared items—have grown over the years. Know how much is too much, and which foods are better to load up on. You may find it helpful to visually divide your plate and measure out portions of healthy foods for the week.

4. Learn how to cook healthy 

How you prep your food is important.Try to avoid frying food and replace unhealthy fats with good fats when possible. It’s also best to make snacks and meals from scratch and limit processed foods, which often contain hidden sodium and added sugars.

When you do eat out, try to reduce your calories, fat and salt by asking for: 

  • No added butter or salt 
  • Half of the portion to be boxed up before the server plates it for you 
  • The dressing for your salad on the side

5. Limit alcohol 

Experts advise limiting alcohol to one drink a day for women and two for men.

6. Don’t shop hungry 

If you go to the grocery store hungry, you are more likely to make unhealthy impulse buys. 

7. Keep a food diary 

This is one of the best ways to look critically at your patterns of eating over time. Based on this information, you can make healthy changes. Nutritional and food tracking apps also can help. 

8. Ask for help 

Don’t go it alone or attempt to cut out major food groups or make too many changes at once because your efforts can backfire. Talk with your health care professional or nutritionist about how many calories you should consume each day and come up with a realistic eating plan that fits your life. Ask your partner or family members to help you stick to a healthy diet.

A healthy diet can help you maintain a healthy body weight and control your blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

Talking With Your Care Team 

It’s important to talk with your doctor and other health care professionals about your overall health, including your diet and challenges that concern you.

Here are some questions you might ask related to healthy eating and nutrition: 

  • How can I change my diet to make it more heart healthy?
  • Should I consult a dietitian or nutritionist? Who would you recommend?
  • What types of foods should I eat or avoid to help me control my disease or lower my chance of developing a disease?
  • What are the best sources of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids?
  • What are the most common sources of added sugars?
  • Are there certain foods or drinks I should avoid based on the medications I take?
  • Is there a specific diet you would recommend (DASH, Mediterranean, or vegetarian diet)?
  • What are the healthiest sources of protein?
  • Should I be taking any dietary supplements?
  • Is it important to know if I am deficient in certain vitamins or nutrients (for example, vitamin D, B12)?
  • Based on my cardiovascular risk factors, what is the most important change I can make to my diet?

Helpful Resources 

CardioSmart provides an array of information and tips for heart-healthy living. Below are some other reputable organizations that you can rely on: 

American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (this website also help you to find a registered nutritionist or dietitian)

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute 

National Library of Medicine—search for heart disease and diet 

For more information about the new Dietary Guidelines, or to access the full report, visit:

Last Reviewed: March 2019
Medical Reviewer: Andrew Freeman MD, FACC
CardioSmart Editor-in-Chief: Martha Gulati, MD, FACC
Originally Published: February 2016

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