New Year, New You, New Dietary Guidelines

The U.S. government’s latest dietary guidelines keep current allowances for sugar and alcohol consumption unchanged. The decision by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services rejected recommendations by a scientific advisory committee to make significant cuts, reported The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 29, 2020).

The guidelines, which are updated every five years, have a wide impact, including influencing what food companies produce. Here are the top five things you should know about the new guidelines:

Overarching Guidelines

The 2020-25 edition includes four overarching guidelines. The guidelines include:

  • follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage
  • customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations
  • focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, staying within calorie limits
  • limit food and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages

Key Recommendations

The guidelines are supported by key recommendations, including quantitative recommendations on limits that are based on the science reviewed. For sugar, there’s a recommendation of less than 10% of calories per day for ages 2 and older, to avoid added sugars for infants and toddlers.

That recommendation was met with both positive and negative reception in the industry. The American Beverage Association, which urged the government to keep the 10% added-sugars limit during a public meeting, released a statement from president and CEO Katherine Lugar which said “America’s beverage companies appreciate the common sense approach taken by USDA.”

Conversely, Elizabeth J. Mayer-Davis, who chaired the federal committee’s beverages and added sugars subcommittee, said she was “disappointed that the dietary guidelines did not adopt the recommendation of 6%” as the limit for added sugars.

Other recommendations included limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories per day starting at age 2, limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day (or less if younger than 14), and limiting alcoholic beverages (if consumed) to two drinks a day or less for men and one drink a day or less for women.

Guidance by Stage of Life is a First

This marks the first time the Dietary Guidelines provided guidance by stage of life, from birth to older adulthood, including pregnancy and lactation. The guidelines are organized by chapters for each life stage, emphasizing that it’s never too early or too late to eat healthy.

Focus on Nutrients

Most of the calories (about 85%) a person eats per day are needed for foods rich in nutrients that help them meet food group recommendations. Only about 15% of calories are left over for added sugars, saturated fat, and alcohol—if consumed. This means that making choices of foods that are rich in nutrients should be a primary focus.

It’s About Eating Patterns

Ultimately, the new Dietary Guidelines advise Americans to “follow a healthy dietary pattern” that consists primarily of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, poultry, and low-fat dairy, as well as seafood, nuts, and vegetable oils.

Overall, the guidelines emphasize a focus on one’s pattern of eating, not just making healthy choices on occasion.