More about the Dietary Guidelines and Your Health
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 are slightly different from previous versions, as they focus on eating patterns rather than individual dietary components. Overall, the main recommendation is to follow a healthy eating pattern that incorporates a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages. The Guidelines recommend that you:
- Consume mostly nutrient-dense foods, which include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and seafood
- Consume fewer foods with sodium (salt), saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains. (The Advisory Committee behind the guidelines specifically recommends reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas.)
- Balance calories with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease
Use plant foods as the foundation of meals
Most of the calories in your diet should come from a variety of whole-grain products, vegetables, and fruits. Plant foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals essential for health, and most are naturally low in fat.
The Guidelines recommend incorporating all the vegetable subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (such as beans and peas), and starchy—into your eating patterns. (You can have some of each throughout the week, for example.)
Plant foods—such as whole-grain breads and cereals, vegetables, and fruits—provide fiber, which is important for proper bowel function and may lower the risk for heart disease and some cancers. Because there are different types of fiber in foods, choose a variety of foods daily. You want whole grains to make up at least half of your overall grain intake.
Get enough calcium-rich foods
Consume some low-fat or fat-free milk or an equivalent amount of calcium each day through other calcium rich foods or a dietary supplement. Soy beverages that are fortified with calcium (like soy milk) are considered equivalent to milk in nutritional and calcium content, but plant-based “milks” (almond, rice, coconut, hemp) are not.
Note: There is some controversy about the amount of dairy you should consume each day. The Dietary Guidelines recommend 3 cups of low-fat or fat-free milk or equivalent dairy each day for adults. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends only one to two servings per day and argues that there is little, if any, evidence that high dairy intakes protect against osteoporosis, while high intakes are associated with increased risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer.
Keep saturated and trans fats low (and total fat intake moderate)
Saturated fat and trans fatty acids raise blood cholesterol more than other forms of fat. Keep saturated fats to less than 10 percent of calories and keep trans fatty acids as low as possible. The fats from meat, milk, and milk products are the main sources of saturated fats in most diets, so select lean meats, poultry, fish, and low-fat milk products. (The Advisory Committee behind the guidelines specifically recommends reducing consumption of red and processed meats to help prevent chronic diseases.) Many bakery products are also sources of saturated fats and trans fatty acids, such as palm oil and partially hydrogenated oils.
The Dietary Guidelines recommend shifting from solid fats to oils in food preparation (for example, using vegetable oil instead of butter in cooking).
Restrict sugar and salt
The best way to avoid unwanted sugar, salt, and other additives is to prepare whole food from scratch as much as possible. This gives you total control not only over the flavor and quality of your food, but also over any unwanted ingredients hidden through processing. The naturally occurring sugars, salts, and fats in our food are important components of a healthy diet and are not to be mistaken for the multitude of artificial sugars, salts, and fats commonly added to foods.
Because maintaining a nutritious diet and a healthy weight is very important, sugars should be used in moderation. People with low-calorie needs should limit sugar intake even more. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that you consume less than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars.
Many studies in diverse populations have shown that a high sodium intake is associated with higher blood pressure. Most evidence suggests that many people at risk for high blood pressure reduce their chances of developing this condition by consuming less salt or sodium. The Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping sodium intake below 2,300 mg/day.
Eat moderate portions
Pay particular attention to portion sizes—the portions in restaurants and on food labels are often far larger than recommended for weight management. Be especially careful to limit portion sizes of foods high in calories, such as baked goods, French fries, and fats and oils.
Use alcohol in moderation
Alcohol provides empty calories and is harmful when consumed in excess. Some people should not drink at all, such as children and adolescents, pregnant women, those with liver or other diseases, those taking certain medications that interact with alcohol, and those who can't restrict their drinking. Moderation is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. (One drink is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.)