USDA's new, best advice on healthy eating

The newly released 2020-2025 Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans will have a significant impact on what some Americans eat. Though the new, updated version didn't make big changes, there was controversy over its recommendations on alcohol, added sugar and saturated fat consumption.

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New dietary guidelines discuss nutrition needs and recommendations throughout a person's lifespan and focus on the importance of eating diverse foods. (MyPlate photo)
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Joanne Slavin once questioned the impact of the every-five-years Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government's updated recommendations on healthy eating. Then Slavin served as a member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and changed her mind.

"Before that (serving on the committee), I was always a little suspicious of who cares (about the dietary guidelines)." In fact, "People would always say, 'Who cares?' said Slavin, a registered dietitian and professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota who teaches advanced human nutrition.

Her message now is, "It's really a lot more important than people think it is. It will affect policy going forward" on such things as school lunches, elderly feeding and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, she said. For example, the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines stressed the importance of eating whole grains, a recommendation that has helped to increase consumption of them.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Health and Human Services, or HHS, is intended to present the best updated research on healthy eating. It seeks to provide science-based advice to promote health, reduce risk of diet-related chronic diseases, meet nutrient needs and to help health professionals and policymakers advise Americans about healthy food choices.

The updated 2020-25 guidelines can be read here.


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The cover of the latest Dietary Guidelines, an every five year report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By and large, the new guidelines — which emphasize "making nutrient-dense choices: one food or beverage at a time" — offers most of the same advice as the 2015-20 version, Slavin and others say.

The new dietary guidelines emphasize the "core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern," the 2020-25 version says. These are dairy; fruits; vegetables of all types; beans, peas and lentils; grains, at least half of which are whole grain; protein foods such as lean meats, poultry and eggs; seafood; nuts, seeds and soy products; and oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food such as seafood.

Key changes, controversy

Joanne Slavin

The biggest change to the new dietary guidelines may be the inclusion of recommendations for feeding children from birth to 24 months, a reflection of growing attention on the need for healthy nutrition at very early stages of life, Slavin said.

Though the advice on such things as breast feeding and infant formula doesn't differ from what dietitians already were recommending, the information hadn't been in the dietary guidelines previously, Slavin said.

The new guidelines also put more emphasis on cultural practices and tradition. There's no such thing as a perfect diet, and a healthy diet can be achieved through different foods found in different cultures and traditions, she said.


New Dietary Guidelines did not lower recommended added sugar consumption in diets. (Pixabay photo)

The most controversial aspect of the new guidelines was that it did not include recommendations for less alcohol consumption for men and lower added-sugar consumption. Some individuals and groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, were pushing for those changes.

By not making the changes, USDA and HHS "cave(d) to pressure from the soft drink and alcohol industries," the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a written statement.

Slavin, in contrast, said, "USDA did the right thing by not changing" the alcohol and added-sugar recommendations. "I don't think the information was that strong to change it. I think it was good to say, 'I think we can wait until the next one (dietary guidelines)' to change that. I think USDA stood with the science and did the right thing."

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service
Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service

Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University professor and Extension specialist whose areas of expertise are nutrition and food safety, said she supports moderation in alcohol consumption for men and added-sugar consumption.

New Dietary Guidelines did not reduce recommended alcohol consumption for men. (Pixabay photo)

She suggested that individuals, ideally with the help of professional nutritionists, evaluate their own situations and modify their alcohol and added-sugar consumption as appropriate.

Industry influence?


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A general view of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 13. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By all accounts, the once-every-five-years report is designed to be transparent and accessible. The process of developing it includes opportunities for everyone to attend meetings and to submit comments.

But critics, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, complain that the food industry sometimes works outside the process, either through lobbying or undocumented meetings with members of Congress and federal agencies.

Sarah Reinhardt is the lead food systems and health analyst for the Food & Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. (Union of Concerned Scientists photo)

Outside-the-process behavior is the exception, not the rule, Sarah Reinhardt, a registered dietitian and analyst with the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Agweek.

Even so, and though it's difficult to prove, there are obvious signs that food industry officials worked behind the scenes to influence the nutritional guidelines in ways that are contrary to the good nutrition and science information provided during the public part of the process, she said.

"Shouldn't that be our goal, to follow good science?" she asked.

Reinhardt said there are no obvious or simple solutions to improving the process when the 2025-30 dietary guidelines are developed.

Saturated fats, dairy

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New Dietary Guidelines reconfirm the importance of dairy products in healthy diets. (Pixabay photo)

But the Union of Concerned Scientists praised the new guidelines because they "retain evidence-based recommendations for fruits, vegetables, whole grains and saturated fats, and for the first time include dietary recommendations for infants, toddlers, and pregnant and lactating women."

The 2020-25 guidelines keep the existing recommendation that no more than 10% of calories come from saturated fats. Some scientists argue that the limit isn't scientifically justified and should be removed.

Garden-Robinson said saturated fats come in different types and are a complicated topic.

The new guidelines also reconfirm the importance of dairy products in healthy diets, Slavin noted.

The National Dairy Council applauded that reaffirmation. "Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt offer essential nutrients that help nourish people throughout life," the organization said in a written statement.

Learn more, set goals

New Dietary Guidelines promote MyPlate, which emphasizes food planning and building healthy eating habits. (USDA graphic)

Slavin, asked where Americans can get accurate information on healthy eating, suggested university Extension specialists, USDA, hospital dietitians and public health officers.

The new report stresses that its goal is health promotion and disease prevention, not disease treatment. It also continues to promote MyPlate, which emphasizes food planning and building healthy eating habits.

MyPlate is a good place to get information, especially for Americans who will pay little, if any, attention to the new dietary guidelines, Garden-Robinson said.

She noted that some people increasingly rely on questionable nutritional information on social media.

"Look out for what you're finding on social media," she said.

Many things have changed since the first dietary guidelines were released 40 years ago, Garden-Robinson said. For example, people in general are more sedentary (home computers are partly responsible for that) and new, "tasty foods" — which aren't necessarily healthy — have been introduced.

On the other hand, there have been numerous advances in the understanding of sound nutrition and healthy eating since 1980.

"Nutrition is one of the newer sciences, and there's still a lot more to learn," she said.

Eating healthier can be daunting, discouraging some people from attempting to do so, Garden-Robinson said.

Her advice to those people:

"Set one easy thing at a time (and then) give yourself time. One of the best (goals) is to increase the amount of vegetables you eat. Work up to 2 1/2 cups a day if you're an adult. Once you get that in place, you can start with some other goals," she said.

'A major public health concern'

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans was first published in 1980. Since then, "Americans have fallen far short of meeting its recommendations, and diet-related chronic disease rates have risen to pervasive levels and continue to be a major public health concern," according to the newly released 2020-25 version.

Among the serious health problems identified:

  • 74% of adults and 40% of children and adolescents are overweight or have obesity.
  • 45% of adults have hypertension.
  • 11% of adults have high total cholesterol.
  • Nearly 11% of Americans have type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
  • About 250,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.
  • More than 1.3 million people are living with colorectal cancer.

The guidelines' effectiveness would increase if more effort and resources were spent putting them into actual practice, rather than having them serve as merely recommendations, said Sarah Reinhardt, a registered dietitian and analyst with the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists
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