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New U.S. Diet Guide Emphasizes Balance Through Life

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Dec. 29, 2020 — The new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans were released Tuesday, offering advice on what to eat by life stage, including information on babies from birth to age 2 for the first time since 1985.

Released by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, the guidelines are designed to represent the government’s advice for the next 5 years. While an expert panel convened to help develop the guidelines recommended that they call for limiting added sugar and alcohol, federal officials chose not to include those suggestions.

“Make every bite count” is the theme of the ninth edition of the guidelines, which have been issued every 5 years since 1980. Publication is mandated by the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990. The guidelines are used to develop, put in place, and evaluate federal food, nutrition, and health policies, as well as to help people eat a healthy diet.

“Science tells us it is never too early nor too late to eat healthy,” Admiral Brett Giroir, MD, assistant secretary for health, said at an event Tuesday unveiling the guidelines. The emphasis, he says, should be on healthy dietary patterns; not a single food, but rather ”how all the foods and beverages a person consumes adds up over time.” The new guidelines also emphasize taking into account personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgets.

The new guidelines continue to support many of the recommendations from previous ones, says Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and food and nutrition consultant in St. Louis and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Science continues to support the evidence for leaner, lower-fat, more plant-based foods,” she says.

She welcomed the updated, specific information for infants and toddlers. Information for this group is sorely needed, she says. “This group [making the recommendations] tackled that, and it’s not an easy tackle.”

Four Guidelines

Four basic guidelines are recommended, including:

  • Follow a healthy diet at every life stage, from birth through adulthood. The guidelines offer specific information by stage.
  • Customize the foods and beverages you eat and drink to meet personal preferences, traditions, and budgets.
  • Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, staying within calorie limits. (The guidelines give examples of typical vs. nutrient-dense foods. Plain, low-fat yogurt with fruit, for instance, is nutrient-dense; full-fat yogurt with added sugars is typical.) The food groups include vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, and proteins.
  • Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. And limit alcoholic beverages.

Updated Information for Infants, Toddlers

From birth through 1 year, or longer if desired, human milk exclusively is preferred. If unavailable, use iron-fortified infant formula. Provide supplemental vitamin D soon after birth.

Nutrient-dense foods can be started at age 6 months, including potentially allergenic foods. A variety of foods from all food groups is needed, and foods rich in iron and zinc should be included.

Added Sugars, Saturated Fats, Sodium, Alcohol

As before, officials recommend that most of a person’s daily calories come from nutrient-dense choices, with little room left for extra added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, or alcoholic beverages. The recommended limits are:

  • Less than 10% of calories from added sugars, starting at age 2. Avoid added sugars before age 2.
  • Less than 10% of calories daily from saturated fat, starting at age 2.
  • Less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day; less for children younger than age 14.
  • No more than two alcoholic drinks a day or less for men, and one for women.

The expert panel had recommended lower limits on sugars and alcohol, but the officials on Tuesday said science did not yet back up that recommendation.

Nutrition by Older Life Stages

The guidelines also have recommendations for other life stages. Among them:

  • Because 41% of children ages 2-18 are overweight or obese, the emphasis should be on eating to ease weight gain while supporting normal growth and development. Physical activity should be encouraged.

  • Physical activity is also encouraged, plus healthy eating, for adults 19-59. Aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity weekly, plus muscle-building activity.
  • For pregnant and lactating women, the report offers guidance on changing calorie needs and on weight management.
  • Adults 60 and older have lower caloric needs but similar or higher nutrient needs.

Putting the Recommendations into Action

In the guidelines, the appendix includes calorie needs for all age groups and for three physical activity levels.

Along with the guidelines, public health officials released a variety of resources to help people put the guidelines into action. At MyPlate.gov, users can look at their current eating routine and pick ways to switch to choices that are better nutritionally.

WebMD Health News


U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: ”Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.”

Connie Diekman,  registered dietitian, food and nutrition consultant, and former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, St. Louis.

Press briefing, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Dec. 29, 2020.

News release, USDA, HHS: “Make Every Bite Count: USDA, HHS Release Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.”

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