Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) releases a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines evolve over time, taking into account recommendations from a committee of scientific experts, with the goal of helping people eat in a way that keeps them healthy and prevents disease. The guidelines for 2020–25 were released at the end of December, and there are quite a few updates in this edition.
Of course, it’s not easy to please everyone. Some nutrition pros feel the guidelines can be slow to keep up with what’s happening in nutrition science. At the same time, “it has to be incredibly challenging to create dietary guidelines for an entire population,” notes Angie Asche, MS, RD. Overall, though, experts believe the guidelines are moving in the right direction. “There’s quite a bit of useful information for people of all ages, especially for those individuals that feel unsure where to even begin,” adds Asche.
Here’s what nutrition experts think is worth highlighting in the latest guidelines.
One of the biggest changes to the guidelines is there are now recommendations for specific age and life-stage groups, including pregnant and lactating women. The age range also extends to age 2. “Previously, the guidelines focused mostly on the average adult and ignored the altered nutrient needs for these groups,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD.
The guidelines for babies are in line with those from the American Academy of Pediatrics and include information on breastfeeding and when to introduce potential allergens. “For pregnant and lactating women, there is a focus on choline, which supports infant brain health and spinal development as well as omega-3’s provided by fatty fish.” These additions are especially important because they’re due to emerging research from recent years, explains Jones.
Another major change involves focusing on a whole-diet approach rather than individual foods and food groups. “This highlights that no one food makes you healthy. Instead, it’s your overall eating pattern and the average of your food choices that determines the nutrient-density of your diet,” Jones says.
“I appreciate the shift from previous iterations, which focused primarily on individual food groups and nutrients, to focusing on eating patterns and their food and nutrient characteristics,” says Erin Kenney, MS, RD. “This moves us away from the idea of a rigid eating pattern and more toward a holistic approach to wellness, taking into consideration cultural, personal and traditional preferences that fit within an individual’s budget.” These important factors in Americans’ food decisions had not been considered previously, which could make Americans of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds feel left out or as if it’s impossible for them to eat more healthfully, notes Jones. “Because socioeconomic status is tied to risk of chronic disease and overall health, it’s critically important to ensure dietary guidelines fit the needs of all Americans.”
“It’s about time the guidelines mentioned coffee consumption,” says Kenney. “The new guidelines state that 3–5, 8-ounce cups/day can be incorporated into healthy eating patterns, but those who do not currently consume caffeine are not encouraged to begin.” That might be because while there are some benefits to caffeine, especially for athletic performance, there are some downsides, too, particularly when it comes to sleep. Still, this is great news for coffee [and tea] lovers out there, says Kenney.
“I was pleased to see the recommendation that children under 2 years of age should not consume any added sugar in their diet,” says Asche. “However, I was surprised to see no change to the added sugar limit of up to 10% total calories. For someone eating a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s up to 50 grams of sugar, which in my opinion is way too high.”
For reference, The American Heart Association recommends no more than 36 grams/day for men and 25 grams/day for women. The advisory committee recommended decreasing added sugar intake to 6%, but the reasoning behind not adopting this change was that it might seem unrealistic for most Americans, Jones notes. That said, you can always track your sugar intake with an app like MyFitnessPal to get a sense of how much you consume and implement these small tweaks to cut back.
Another area experts were startled by was alcohol. “I was surprised the healthy alcohol recommendation for men and women didn’t come down this year,” says Matt Dengler, MS, RDN. “With the known high rate of ‘heavy alcohol use’ in this country (25.8% of all Americans), the 14.1 million Americans who suffer from Alcohol Use Disorder and the 95,000 people who die per year from alcohol-related deaths, I thought the alcohol recommendations would drop.”
Currently, and in the 2015 guidelines, healthy or moderate alcohol use is described as up to 2 drinks per day for men and up to 1 drink per day for women. Similar to added sugar, the advisory committee recommended lowering alcohol intake guidelines to up to 1 drink per day for both women and men, but the change wasn’t adopted. The guidelines clarify that people who don’t drink alcohol already shouldn’t start. Since alcohol can negatively affect your sleep and weight-loss goals, it’s a good idea to log your beverages in MyFitnessPal, so you can identify any trends and see how you feel if you cut back.
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