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Dietary Guidelines

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 or not exercising—increase your chance of developing heart 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 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.

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.

Here 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

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

  • Last Edited 03/31/2019