Somewhere between mom’s wisdom to “eat our vegetables” and the multibillion-dollar weight loss industry of today, we have made healthy eating a confusing and complicated subject.
But if you’re looking for a single go-to source for nutrition advice in this sea of marketing and competing bestsellers, there is the Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Revised every five years and rooted in the current body of nutrition science, these official guidelines are used by policymakers in developing food, nutrition and health programs, and they serve as the basis for our nation’s educational materials on food choices aimed at reducing heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
The latest edition, published for 2015-2020 and released last month, is notable for its emphasis on eating patterns that span a lifetime, that focus on essential nutrients, calorie consumption supporting a healthy body weight, and foods that reduce the risk of chronic disease. While much of the advice stays the same, such as consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat and low-fat foods and restricting intake of saturated fats and trans fats, the FDA made some changes.
Specifically, the new guidelines:
- Encourage Americans to consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars. Previously, the guidelines just noted that Americans should limit intake of calories from added sugars.
- Ease salt limits for some adults, calling for Americans to consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium, roughly a teaspoon of salt. Previously, about half the U.S. population (including children and the majority of adults) were advised to consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily, while the limit for the others was 2,300 milligrams per day.
- Ease the strict limit on dietary cholesterol stating it was no longer “a nutrient of concern,” dropping the recommendation to limit cholesterol consumption to 300 mg per day (an egg has about 200 mg).
- Note that three to five 8-ounce coffee cups a day can be part of a healthy diet.
While the guidelines are a good start, nutritional experts say there’s always room to do more, if you’re motivated. Cherie Chao, Outpatient Nutritionist and Cardiac Rehab Dietitian at Lutheran Medical Center, recommends a plant-based diet, where meat and dairy are minimal.
“Focus on eating a plant-based diet, one that is higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains – one that has variety,” she recommends, adding that the emphasis on how much to reduce salt, saturated fat and dairy intake divides the beef and dairy industries and nutritionist experts on just how much is enough. “We’re eating about 40 percent more meat than recommended,” Chao said. “And even what’s recommended is more than we need.”
Other tips from Chao:
- Eat fewer desserts and less frequently
- Reduce or eliminate all sugared beverages, including fancy coffee drinks, smoothies, soda, and fruit juice
- Limit dairy, which includes milk, ice cream and cheese
Ann Lewis, a Clinical Dietitian at Saint Joseph Hospital, agreed with Chao on this concept of “clean eating.”
“Whenever possible, move away from a processed food. Bread is a processed food,” Lewis said. “Breakfast cereal is a processed food. Whenever possible, use steel-cut oats and make them yourself. That is going to be closer to an original product that is grown.”
Lewis also suggests:
- Instead of bread at dinner, have half a cup of quinoa, brown or wild rice or legumes, which are a much healthier carbohydrate than a more processed version like pasta or bread
- Replace juice with whole fruit
- Include a vegetable with lunch and dinner every day
- Substitute fish twice a week for red meat
- Include legumes/beans at least three times a week
“Those are fairly easy and achievable, but they do make a difference,” Lewis said. “Vegetables fill you up, so you’re not going to eat as much of the entrée if you include them with a meal. Low-calorie, high-fiber foods are very filling.”
If you’re not sure how to apply the guidelines, try the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which recommends reducing sodium intake and eating a variety of foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure — potassium, calcium and magnesium.
“Basically, it’s a healthy diet for anyone to be following. It’s also good for people who are diabetic, or as a preventive diet for heart disease or cancer. It’s a sound diet that meets the guidelines that are out there,” Lewis said.
For more nutrition information from SCL Health, visit our Health and Wellness Library.
Highlights of the 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are as follows; click on the link for more details on specific nutritional targets and dietary limits:
Consume a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all foods and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.
A healthy eating pattern includes:
- A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
A healthy eating pattern limits:
- Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
- Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan. All food and beverage choices matter. Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
- Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.
- Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.
- Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices. Consider cultural and personal preferences to make these shifts easier to accomplish and maintain.
- Support healthy eating patterns for all. Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work to communities.