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What you need to know about the new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

February 24, 2021 6 min. read
by Amanda Bourbonais

Here’s what you need to know about the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans and how they can benefit everyone from infants to seniors.

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

At the UT Nutrition Institute, we are all about providing scientifically-supported nutrition guidance for individuals, families, and communities. And now, we have a newly updated resource backed by the USDA and the HHS that helps do just that: the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

At the end of 2020, the Federal government published the new 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a comprehensive report on what a healthy dietary pattern should look like for Americans at all stages of life. This report was created over a period of several months with input from Federal scientists, external peers with nutrition expertise, and the general public.

Here’s what you need to know about this helpful health and nutrition resource and how you can apply this information to your life and your family’s nutrition.

In this blog:

  • What are the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
  • Why were the Dietary Guidelines updated in 2020?
  • Who created the new Dietary Guidelines?
  • How do the Dietary Guidelines apply to me?
  • Should I follow the Dietary Guidelines exactly?
  • Why should I follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? 
  • Key Takeaways from the New Dietary Guidelines for Americans 

What are the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans? 

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a list of recommendations Americans should follow to optimize their nutrition through healthy dietary choices. These recommendations vary depending on life stage—from infancy through toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy, lactation, and older adulthood.

Broadly, the Dietary Guidelines focus on a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet which can be customized to individual preferences, culture, traditions, and cost parameters.

There are just four basic tenets to follow from the new Dietary Guidelines:

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage, defined as “the combination of foods and beverages that constitutes an individual’s complete dietary intake over time.”
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
  4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

The Guidelines specifically highlight the following foods as part of a healthy dietary pattern: 

  • Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

Most Americans today will have to make some changes in their diet to follow these guidelines, and the writers acknowledge that an individual’s ability to follow these recommendations varies based on environment, socioeconomic status, cultural ties, and many other factors. 

The Dietary Guidelines are simply meant to be a foundation from which an individual can optimize their nutrition, working with a doctor or qualified nutrition professional where necessary.1

Why were the Dietary Guidelines updated in 2020? 

Under the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans must be updated at least once every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

It is important to keep the general public as well as policymakers up to date with the latest nutrition recommendations as we continue to learn more about the relationship between human nutrition and health. Since science and nutrition research are advancing all the time, we are likely to see additional changes to these guidelines in the years to come. 

The most significant update to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is the focus on dietary recommendations by life stage, from birth to older adulthood. 

Who created the new Dietary Guidelines? 

The Guidelines were created by a writing team of staff from the USDA and the HHS, including Federal nutrition scientists with expertise in the Dietary Guidelines as well as experienced nutrition communication experts.

The writing team gathered information and feedback from the Scientific Report prepared by the Advisory Committee (including UT’s own, Dr. Heather Leidy), which suggests changes to the new edition of the Guidelines. Then, the writing team drafted new chapters in the Guidelines, which go through many reviews and revisions before reaching the final report.

Then, the Dietary Guidelines are reviewed by Federal scientists, external peers such as members of previous Advisory Committees, and finally they withstand a Departmental clearance, including review and approval by the Secretaries of the USDA and the HHS.2

The USDA and HHS also provide opportunities for the public to weigh in on the Guidelines throughout the creation process. 

How do the Dietary Guidelines apply to me? 

It depends on who you are! For the first time since its inception, the Guidelines include nutrition recommendations based on life stage, including pregnancy and lactation. 

The Guidelines may also apply to you differently depending on your health status. For example, your diet may differ depending on whether you are generally healthy, at risk of developing a chronic illness, or whether you already have one or more chronic illnesses.

There are some recommendations, though, that apply to everyone at all life stages. For example, the Guidelines recommend limiting excess sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol consumption for all Americans.

Should I follow the Dietary Guidelines exactly? 

No, and there’s no need to feel less than or guilty about not following the Guidelines exactly. Everyone is a little different, and the guidelines purposely allow for flexibility with “personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.” Follow them to the best of your ability, and remember that a fun indulgence every now and then is part of a healthy lifestyle too.3

Secondly, while the Guidelines recommend a wide variety of food groups, you should absolutely tailor the options to your tolerances. If you are lactose intolerant, of course, you should not consume dairy, even though dairy is recommended as a healthy nutrition staple.

Finally, those with chronic conditions should still work with a medical professional to determine the optimal diet and nutrition considerations for their individual health needs. 

Why should I follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? 

Aligning your diet more closely to the Dietary Guidelines can potentially lower the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity, and lower risk of hip fracture.4

We also know that establishing and preserving a healthy diet throughout our lives is essential to maintaining our wellness and vitality, not just preventing disease. 

As Dr. Heather Leidy, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and member of the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee explains:

“ When we're younger it's about establishing healthy lifestyles. Typically we think about that as establishing healthy dietary patterns and physical activities, as well as social behaviors. In the middle of our life it's more about optimizing healthy lifestyles. Then, as we age, it's about preserving them.”

Dr. Heather Leidy

Building up our nutritional foundations, no matter what stage of life we are in, can promote positive effects radiating out through the many areas of our lives. When we eat better, we feel better, and in turn we are able to show up better for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Key Takeaways from the New Dietary Guidelines for Americans 

  • The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans serve as a nutritional reference point for the individual to customize and build a healthy diet that works for them. 
  • The Guidelines were created with the latest scientific research in mind as well as consideration for the diversity of American individuals and experiences. 
  • They recognize that “a healthy dietary pattern is not a rigid prescription” but a “framework of core elements within which individuals make tailored and affordable choices that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences.”
  • The recommendations vary according to life stage, from infancy to older adulthood, including considerations for pregnant and lactating women. 
  • These Guidelines are the latest in an ever-evolving approach to everyday health and wellness via optimal dietary patterns and adequate nutrition. 

For more information, read the full executive summary of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

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