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New Dietary Guidelines Explained

Establishing Long-Term Healthy Eating Patterns


Every five years, the dietary guidelines for Americans are updated based on current scientific and medical knowledge. Introduced in 1990 under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, the guidelines are a joint publication between the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. While these guidelines are designed to help professionals educate individuals over the age of two, they also aid in the development of federal food, nutrition, and health policies.

In the latest edition of the dietary guidelines, the focus has shifted away from individual dietary components and toward overall healthy eating patterns. The goal is to help people make healthy eating choices for their whole lives. In the United States, the rate of nutrient deficiency has declined significantly, while the rate of chronic disease has increased. The new guidelines reflect the clinical evidence regarding how healthy eating patterns and regular physical exercise can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Generally, about three-fourths of Americans have an eating pattern that is inadequate in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and oils. On the other hand, most of the population consumes excessive amounts of added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.

While the dietary guidelines do suggest serving amounts for different food groups, they focus on limiting added ingredients like sugar, salt, and solid fats, such as saturated and trans fats. The recommendations are to consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars, less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats, and less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. By limiting these ingredients, the goal is to help people maintain a healthy weight, reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, and help manage their blood pressure.

In order to meet these recommendations, the guidelines encourage people to substitute in whole fruits, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, a variety of proteins, and oils. The message that comes across in this 2015 edition of the guidelines is clear: Everything we eat and drink can be part of a healthy eating pattern. The goal is to make substitutions to help change our eating pattern over time. By focusing on getting our nutrition needs through nutrient-dense whole foods, we will lessen our need to supplement our diets. Nutrient-dense foods are foods that pack a lot of nutrients into a modest amount of calories. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, along with lean proteins and dairy products are examples of nutrient-dense foods.

A big change with the new dietary guidelines is the elimination of the total cholesterol intake recommendation. Previously, the guidelines recommended limiting dietary cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams per day. Our bodies produce enough cholesterol to meet our daily needs, and therefore, we do not need to obtain cholesterol through foods. However, there is not enough evidence to support a limit of daily cholesterol intake. This means that while most foods that are high in cholesterol are also high in saturated and trans fats, there are a couple of exceptions. Most notably, eggs and some shellfish are high in cholesterol, but aren’t high in solid fats. It is important to keep in mind that this removal of the daily cholesterol intake guideline does not encourage the consumption of fatty meats and high-fat dairy products since they are high in saturated and trans fat.

Another take-away from the guidelines is that we all have a role in helping each other achieve healthy eating patterns. Healthcare professionals, policymakers, family, friends, and co-workers should all work together to support individuals with making healthy changes. Remember, your current eating pattern was not established in one day and it is not realistic to completely change it overnight. Over time and through small substitutions, we can all achieve a healthy eating pattern by looking at the dietary guidelines for ways to make changes. We can also look to each other for the support to help make it happen.


Nick Fischetti is a clinical dietitian at VCU Health. He graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in nutrition. He lives in the Fan. 
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