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Understanding the New 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, they give us the nutrients we need to function. How we eat over time can also affect our overall health and body weight. In fact, research finds lifestyle habits—dietary choices and whether or not you exercise—contribute to a large percentage of cardiovascular disease. But how do you know what to eat and what to steer clear of?

There are many steps you can take to educate yourself. For example, learning how to read food labels, control portion sizes or even consulting a dietitian or nutritionist. Another important resource are the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which professionals use to help Americans make healthy choices in their daily lives to help prevent chronic disease and enjoy a healthy diet.

Every five years, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services together issue new Dietary Guidelines to keep pace with the latest nutrition research. These guidelines are intended to offer the best, most up-to-date recommendations based on the science at hand and/or in response to trends.

What do the guidelines do?

The Dietary Guidelines are primarily designed 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 risk of 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 nutritional initiatives.

Nutrition and Heart Health Go Hand in Hand

Did You Know?

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

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

More than two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and youth are overweight or obese.

What are some of the key recommendations?

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

Adopt a healthy eating pattern for a lifetime.

Not surprisingly, the Guidelines advise eating a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods including a mix of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, lean meats, poultry, legumes, nuts, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.

The reason is that people do not eat specific 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 take away: All foods and beverages 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.

Another key message is that healthy eating patterns should be adapted to fit a person’s life – this includes personal, cultural, and traditional preferences. The Guidelines also acknowledge that the setting within which someone is eating or gets foods matters because it can influence the choices available. For example, what is available in school or work cafeterias, access to fresh food markets, etc.

Key take away: When you talk with your health care professional or nutritionist about how to adopt 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 those with more healthful fats – e.g., olive and vegetable-based oils. Prepared foods, especially those with certain meats and cheese are common sources of excess saturated fat.

Key take away: Saturated fats should make up no more than 10 percent of calories each day.

Keep sodium low

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

Key take away: Limit sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day (less than a teaspoon of salt); people who have or at risk for high blood pressure, who are age 51 and older or have other health problems may benefit from restricting their sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day. Try not to add salt before tasting 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 percent) 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 take away: added sugars should account for less that 10 percent of daily calories. That means if your goal is to stay at 2,000 calories a day, only 200 or less should be from added sugars.

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


Don’t forget to exercise.
The Guidelines also includes 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), starchy, and other
- 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

There is growing evidence showing that “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.”

8 Ways to Make Good Nutrition Easier 

1. Choose wisely 
    Be mindful about choosing heart healthy foods; for example: 
            - 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 overeat without really knowing it. Portions at restaurants—even the size of bagels, baked goods and other prepared items—have steadily gotten bigger over the years. Know how much is too much, and which foods are better to load up on. Some people find it helpful to visually divide their plate and pre-portioning healthy foods for the week.

4. Learn how to cook healthy
How you prep your food is important; try to avoid frying food and substitute unhealthy 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 they plate it for you 
        - the dressing on the side

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

12 fl oz of
regular beer
8-9 fl oz of
malt liquor (shown in a 12-oz glass)
5 fl oz of
table wine
3-4 fl oz of
fortified wine

(such as sherry or port; 3.5 oz shown)
2-3 fl oz of
cordial, liqueur, or aperitif (2.5 oz shown)
1.5 fl oz of brandy or cognac
(a single jigger or shot)
1.5 fl oz shot of 80-proof distilled spirits
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. There are also nutritional and food tracking apps that can help.

8. Ask for help
Don’t go it alone or attempt to cut out major foods groups or make too many changes at once; your efforts can backfire. Talk with your health care provider or nutritionist about how many calories you should be consuming each day and come up with an eating plan that is realistic and fits your life. Ask your partner or family 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 health care providers about your overall health, including your diet and specific challenges that concern you.

Here are some questions you might consider asking 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 risk or 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 (e.g., vitamin D, B12)?
  • Based on my cardiovascular risk factors, what is the most important change I can make to my diet?

Helpful resources provides an array of information and tips for heart health 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)

American Heart Association – Nutrition Center

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:

Published: Feb. 2016
Medical Reviewer: Martha Gulati, MD, MS, FACC, FAHA, Division Chief of Cardiology, University of Arizona College of Medicine - Phoenix, Physician Executive Director for the Banner University Medicine Cardiovascular Institute


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