The final versions were released to the public in early January, and were lauded by most trustworthy sources for nutrition information as a balanced, evidence-based, and actionable approach to steering Americans to better eating habits (with a few small caveats). But what exactly are these guidelines? How are they made, what do they say, and who are they to tell you how to eat, anyway?
What are the Dietary Guidelines?
The federal government has been doling out dietary advice since at least the 1960s - but it wasn't until 1990 (#90sbabies, holler) it was mandated by law that every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (DHHS) put their collective bureaucratic heads together and, after a long hard look at the most recent scientific data, make some recommendations about how to eat. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (or DGAs for short) is a compilation of everything we currently know about nutrition - what to eat (and how much of it) in order to promote optimal health and well-being and prevent disease.
What are the main takeaways?
One of the biggest changes you'll see this year and in future iterations of the DGAs is that, in light of the fact that everyone has different needs and follows different patterns of eating, the new guidelines have officially done away with recommended servings of artificially categorized food groups. Rather, the guidelines focus on promoting certain foods to be eaten more or less, according to one's individual calorie needs. (If you're wondering how to get a good estimate of your own calorie needs, I recommend this online calculator).
Here's what the guidelines say we should be getting more of, and some personal commentary from yours truly:
Unlike stock photography lighting practices, it turns out not much has changed since the '90s in terms of what the U.S. government says we should be eating more of.
- All types of fruits and vegetables with all different colors of the rainbow. If it grows from the ground (and you can buy it in the produce section of a supermarket), eat more of it.
- Michael Pollan and I don't agree on everything when it comes to nutrition. But he's certainly on the money when he says that it's best to base your diet around the foods you get from the outside perimeter of a grocery store.
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, such as skim or 1% milk, yogurt (the less added sugar, the better), low-fat cheese, or vegan options such as almond milk that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals.
- Though I am not a vegan, I personally love unsweetened vanilla almond milk. It's only 30 calories per cup, has a light, clean taste, and is great for baking - or shamelessly chugging straight from the carton.
- Plain, 0% Greek yogurt is also a staple in my daily diet. Most brands are around 130 calories per cup with upwards of 24g of high-quality protein. I dress mine up with sugar-free maple syrup, fresh fruit, and lots and lots of cinnamon.
- High-protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, and soy products.
- Protein plays a role in countless vital bodily processes, including healing damaged tissue, keeping your immune system humming, and forming the hormones and enzymes you need to function at your best.
- Tempeh, beans, nuts, and egg whites form the basis of my protein-rich foods as a vegetarian. Contrary to popular belief, you can easily meet your protein needs without the consumption of meat. Just this summer, as I was preparing for my first bodybuilding competition, I met my daily goal of 150+ grams of protein per day with these foods, Greek yogurt, and no more than 1.5 scoops of protein powder or protein bars per day.
- Fiber-rich whole grain products, such as whole-grain pasta and breads.
- Whole-grain products retain more of the grain's naturally occurring nutrients, including fiber, which most Americans needs to get more of. The guidelines recommend that at least half of your carb-rich foods, such as breads, rice, cereal, and pasta, come from sources with a whole grain label.
Here are the foods the guidelines recommend limiting:
Salted caramel vodka cupcakes: for when you feel like throwing caution to the wind.
- Added sugars - limit to 10% of your daily calories, or around 50 grams total per day.
- Sugar, by itself, isn't evil - or toxic. It's naturally found in plenty of healthful foods, such as fruit, and even the occasional indulgent sweet treat can play a part in a balanced, healthy lifestyle. However, added sugars may contribute to weight gain because they add lots of extra, non-nourishing calories to food and also make that food much easier to overeat (after all, when's the last time you blacked out and overdid it on a bag of celery?). To keep added sugars in check take some sage advice from Nia Shanks: splurge on the sugary foods you truly love, and ditch the ones you can live without. Remember: it's perfectly okay to pass on the store-bought Safeway cake at your workplace's monthly birthday party, especially when you've got your eye on that delicious dark chocolate torte from the tapas place down the street this weekend instead.
- In fact, the guidelines' 10% figure doesn't actually come from the absolute amount of sugar that's "bad" for you. Instead, it's based on the idea that 50 grams (or 200 calories' worth) of sugar is the maximum amount you can fit into an average 2,000-calorie diet while still having enough room for all the other, more nutritious foods you need to meet get your fill of vitamins and minerals. Theoretically, if you need more than 2,000 calories to maintain a healthy weight (if you're, say, an endurance athlete or just a world-class fidgeter) you can probably fit a tad more sugar into your diet to fuel your daily activities with no health consequences. On this note, remember to match your fiber intake to your calorie consumption - at least 14 grams for every 1,000 calories.
- Remember your estimated daily calorie needs from the calculator linked earlier? Take that number and divide it by ten. Then, divide again by four. The resulting number is a good rule of thumb for your daily sugar intake.
- Extra sugars and calories can be hiding in foods that are branded as "healthy," such as canned fruits, granola bars, and sweetened yogurt. Try passing on the syrupy canned fruit cocktail, which adds empty calories, in favor of whole fruits or frozen fruit pieces.
- Saturated fats - limit to 10% of your daily calories, or around 22 grams total per day.
- The question of whether saturated fats (such as those found in butter and cream) cause more heart disease and death than unsaturated fats (found in plant and nut oils) is a subject rife with controversy in the world of nutrition science. Each time a study showing that saturated fats have no adverse health effects is published, several disgruntled scientists pop up to point out the study's flaws, and vice versa. In fact, the 2015-2020 DGAs dedicated an entire working group to looking at the studies on saturated fat in particular.
- Like the 10% figure on sugar intake, the DGA's advice on saturated fat should be relative to your overall calorie intake - not one number that's the same for everyone. If you need more than 2,000 calories to fuel your body, you can stand to eat more than 22 grams per day.
- To find your daily saturated fat intake, take your estimated calorie needs, divide by ten, and then again by 9. Shoot for around that number of saturated fat grams per day.
- We may not know for years about the true effect of saturated fat intake on health and longevity. For now, I'll choose to follow these guidelines, which echo the 2013 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology guidelines advising a limitation on saturated fats for optimal heart health.
- Sodium - limit to 2,300mg per day (the amount in one teaspoon of table salt)
- This recommendation will be another one to watch in 2020. Similar to saturated fat, there is plenty of controversy currently stirring in the medical research field about just how much sodium is bad for you. Though the overall weight of the evidence may shift over the coming years, it's probably your best bet to find small ways to reduce your daily sodium intake - such as buying low-sodium broths, soups, and sauces - and generally being aware of how much sodium is in the foods you most often eat.
- Salt is a great way to make vegetables and other more "boring" foods much more tasty. If it's between reducing your salt intake and not getting your veggies in, go with the veggies every time. But there are other ways to dress up your vegetables, too - using plenty of different spices and seasonings adds flavor to your plate without the extra salt. As someone who struggles to moderate her own salt intake, I've personally found that adding balsamic vinegar to my soups and baked veggies makes them delicious!
- Alcohol - limit to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- The current evidence on alcohol suggests that it's better for your health to drink some, but much worse to drink too much. Distilled liquors, such as vodka and gin, may even carry the same health benefits as beer and wine, meaning there might be something about the alcohol itself, and not whatever's used to make it, that could lead to better health. Most researchers still aren't sure why this is, but when it comes to the occasional glass of wine (or - who am I kidding? - vodka Sugar-Free RedBull) I won't ask too many questions.
- Remember that the definition of "one drink" depends on the type of alcohol you're drinking. A bottle (12oz) of beer, a glass (5oz, or about 2/3 full) of wine, and a 1.5oz shot of liquor all count as "one drink."
What's New This Year?
The things I found most exciting about the new DGAs were their focus on following the scientific evidence on hot-button topics like artificial sweeteners, cholesterol, and caffeine.
- Artificial sweeteners are a-okay. The new 2015-2020 DGAs finally gave more than lip service to an array of products that can have a real impact on healthy weight management for Americans. Decades of repeated studies on sweetener consumption have shown that consuming these low-calorie sweeteners in moderation poses no health threat, either short- or long-term. In fact, several large studies suggest that swapping out sugary drinks and snacks for those made with artificial sweeteners can help you lose weight and keep it off without giving up all the foods you love.
- Cholesterol is out of jail. For decades, the DGAs have recommended an upper-limit on cholesterol intake. However, all of the recent evidence shows that the cholesterol on your plate (from eggs, fatty meat and dairy) does not contribute to blood cholesterol. Rather, a host of more important factors are at play: physical activity, family health history, body weight, and saturated and trans fat intake chief among them. Current data suggest that most Americans eat all that much cholesterol anyway. So enjoy that egg sandwich (but remember - watch the sat fats).
- Enjoy caffeinated beverages in smart moderation. Caffeine was another hot topic in this year's guidelines - in fact, the mere mention of "caffeine" shot up from 0 in 2010 to 205 in the 2015 edition. The guidelines restate the evidence on caffeine consumption, which shows that up to 400mg of caffeine per day has no ill effects. In fact, coffee - where Americans get approximately 80% of their caffeine buzz - may even impart some health benefits.
- 400mg of caffeine can take many forms. It may come in any of these forms (all data from Caffeine Informer):
- Three 8oz cups of brewed coffee
- Five 1.5oz shots of espresso
- Three-and-a-half medium-sized (12oz) cans of RedBull
- Almost 6 (5.8) cans of PepsiMax
- Nine-and-a-half 8oz cups of brewed black tea
- 16 8oz cups of brewed green tea
Stray Points about the New Guidelines and Their Application
- There's a reason these guidelines are required to be updated every five years. What we know, and what we think we know, in the field of nutrition is constantly changing. However, there are a few solid standbys, as seen in the list of "dos" from the latest guidelines, that haven't changed for many years and will be your best bet for finding healthful eating habits you can stick with for life.
- Nutrition science is complicated and messy. A recent article summed up this point quite eloquently: just because owning a dog is associated with eating egg rolls, this doesn't mean eating egg rolls causes canine ownership (or vice versa!) The ways in which we gather data about nutrition, such as asking someone to recall everything they ate for a week, doesn't always give us a perfectly accurate snapshot of true eating habits. It's important to take a critical eye whenever you read a study that claims a certain food is the silver bullet to any and all ailments. On the other hand, we've come a long way in studying the effects of food on the body, and the more well-designed studies that all point to the same idea pile up, the more confident we can be that we're getting closer and closer to the truth.
- Some things never change. The most important take-home points made in the 2015-2020 guidelines are simply echoes of general pillars of good nutrition that have been known and well-accepted for years. If you can find a way to meet your needs for fruits and vegetables, base your carbohydrates around less-refined, whole-grain sources, save your sugary splurges for the foods you truly love, and find ways to cut down on saturated fat (such as choosing lean meats and/or plants for your protein sources) you are well on your way to establishing a diet that will not only do your body good, but one that helps you be the happiest and most whole person you can be.
- True nutritional health stands at the precipice of physical, social, and emotional well-being. I think Amber Rodgers of Go Kaleo says it best with the way she describes her "Food Foundation":
This diagram makes clear that even if you ate every morsel of every meal completely by the book based on the latest dietary guidelines (which, as explained above, can be based upon constantly-shifting science) it wouldn't be a one-way ticket to making you feel good about what you're eating - which is the only real way to create lasting, lifelong healthy eating habits. Establishing a balanced, loving relationship with food and finding ways to eat that support your values and lets you participate in shared culture(s) with others is just as important to creating an overall sense of physical, emotional and social health. Making sure each of these pillars is strong will help you make and keep a healthy diet not just now, but for life.