For good health, the emphasis is on establishing healthy eating patterns rather than focusing on individual nutrients, according to the new 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), the federal government’s evidence-based nutritional and dietary recommendations. The guidelines, released in early January, emphasize the fact that your food choices can affect your risk for chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
The guidelines’ primary purpose is to prevent disease, not treat it. “In essence, the Dietary Guidelines are a resource for healthcare professionals whose job it is to translate this important information in a meaningful way to the public,” explains Sara Haas, RDN, a chef and Chicago-area spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The guidelines are revised every five years to reflect the latest nutrition science. So what are the DGA recommendations this time around?
Some things haven’t changed, such as balancing calorie intake with output, increasing plant foods like fruits and vegetables, making sure at least half of the grains you eat are whole grains, limiting alcohol and reducing saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
The new DGAs zone in on added sugars—sugars and syrups added to foods and drinks when they are processed or prepared (think soda, candy, cake and cookies)—by limiting them to 10 percent of total calories per day.
Now there’s also a focus on healthy eating patterns, with a push toward more nutrient-dense foods. “I have always been a big fan of focusing on nutrient-dense foods. I think it’s an important message,” says Britt Burton-Freeman, PhD, director of the Center for Nutrition Research at Illinois Institute of Technology.
“People do not eat foods and nutrients in isolation, but in combination, creating a pattern,” Freeman adds. Patterns of eating are a core DGA principle because what people habitually eat and drink has been found to be more predictive of overall health than individual foods or nutrients.
In addition, there is a focus on specific foods rather than broad recommendations. “Telling someone to eat more citrus fruits makes more sense than recommending more vitamin C,” Haas explains. It’s easier to understand food than individual nutrients.
There’s more than one way to eat healthfully, and the DGAs give examples of health-enhancing eating patterns, such as the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern and Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern. There’s an emphasis on eating for a healthier planet with minimally processed food, less packaging and less red meat. Yet, cholesterol in foods isn’t as much of a concern in this latest protocol.
The new DGAs will be used to update many federal programs including the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels and the school breakfast and lunch programs.
“The guidelines will push the development of new strategies to be consistent with guidelines,” Freeman says. “The food-labeling changes will likely encourage reformulation of recipes and menu offerings to have less added sugar, for example.”
In turn, consumer demand for less sugar and more nutrient-density with fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats will pressure the food industry to create health-enhancing foods and beverages. At least that’s the hope for these new guiding nutrition principles.
Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN, is a lifestyle nutritionist and author of Total Body Diet for Dummies. Follow her @vsrnutrition.