2.4 – Understanding the Bigger Picture of the Dietary Guidelines

Learning Objective

  • Describe the major themes of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the diseases they are intended to prevent or minimize.


Did you know?

The first US dietary recommendations were set by the National Academy of Sciences in 1941. The recommended dietary allowances (RDA) were first established out of concern that America’s overseas World War II troops were not consuming enough daily nutrients to maintain good health. The first Food and Nutrition Board was created in 1941, and in the same year set recommendations for the adequate intakes of caloric energy and eight essential nutrients. These were disseminated to officials responsible for food relief for armed forces and civilians supporting the war effort. Since 1980, the dietary guidelines have been reevaluated and updated every five years by the advisory committees of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The guidelines are continually revised to keep up with new scientific evidence-based conclusions on the importance of nutritional adequacy and physical activity to overall health. While dietary recommendations set prior to 1980 focused only on preventing nutrient inadequacy, the current dietary guidelines have the additional goals of promoting health, reducing chronic disease, and decreasing the prevalence of overweight and obesity. The 2020-2025 Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was completed in July of 2020.1 The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released in December of 2020.

1Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2020. Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC.


a graphic displaying a 3-d silhouette of a person with two food item choices in front of them. An Apple, and a cupcake. Signifying the healthy choices we should all make every day when we decide what to eat.
Figure 2.4.1: A graphic of a person sitting at a table with two food choices in front of them. One is an apple, which has nutrients and is a healthier snack, and the other is a cupcake signifying a less healthy choice this person could make. CC0 Public Domain

Why Are Guidelines Needed?

Instituting nation-wide standard policies provides consistency across organizations and allows health-care workers, nutrition educators, school boards, and elder-care facilities to improve nutrition and subsequently the health of their respective populations. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are designed to help Americans eat a healthier diet. Intended for policymakers and health professionals, the 2020-20205 edition of the Dietary Guidelines outlines how people can improve their overall eating patterns — the complete combination of foods and drinks in their diet. The free 2020-2025 edition offers overarching themes about what constitutes a healthy diet, how to shift behaviors to make it possible to follow a healthful diet, and a number of Key Recommendations with specific nutritional targets and dietary limits


An image symbolizing the balance one should have regarding diet and exercise
Figure 2.4.2: An illustration of a scale balancing diet and exercise


Major Themes of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines suggest starting with four guidelines for the American public to improve their eating habits. It also includes several key recommendations. These four guidelines are as follows:

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
  4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

We will discuss the highlights of each chapter of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans; however, if you are interested in reading more, visit the USDA website.

How should you develop a healthy eating plan to best achieve your goals of losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining weight? To provide further guidance, several key recommendations are provided. These should be applied in their entirety because of their interconnectedness.

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, or yogurt (or lactose-free dairy or  fortified soy versions)
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.

  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
  • Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats
  • Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium
  • If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation – up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men – and only by adults of legal drinking age.

Finally, all Americans regardless of age should meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.


Foods and Food Components to Reduce

High consumption of certain foods, such as those high in saturated or trans fat, sodium, added sugars, and refined grains may contribute to the increased incidence of chronic disease. Additionally, excessive consumption of these foods replaces the intake of more nutrient-dense foods.

Table 2.4.1 A little less of these, please

A table that shows Dietary Constituents, the health implications of that constituent, and also a recommendation for consumption rate on that dietary constituent.
Dietary Constituent Health Implication(s) Recommendations
Excess Sodium High Blood Pressure Limit intake to 2,300 mg daily
Trans Fats Cardiovascular disease Limit intake of synthetic sources to as low as possible
Too much saturated fat Cardiovascular disease Limit intake to < 10 percent of total calories*
Added Sugars Obesity, Type 2 diabetes Limit intake to < 10 percent of total calories*
Too much alcohol Impaired liver function, impaired motor function No more than one drink per day for women; No more than two drinks per day for men

*For most calorie levels, there are not enough calories available after meeting the food group needs to consume 10 percent of calories from added sugars and 10 percent of calories from saturated fats and still stay within calorie limits.

The average person consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, mostly in the form of table salt. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines recommend that Americans reduce their daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams. If you are over the age of fifty-one, are African American, or have cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, sodium intake should be reduced even further to 1,500 milligrams. The Dietary Guidelines also recommend that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat and that calories from fat should be obtained by eating foods high in unsaturated fatty acids. Moreover, if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed only in moderation, which for women it is not more than one drink per day, and for men is not more than two drinks per day. The macronutrients protein, carbohydrates, and fats contribute considerably to total caloric intake. The I.O.M. has made recommendations for different age groups on the percentage of total calories that should be obtained from each macronutrient class (Table 2.4.2 ).

Table 2.4.2: Recommendations for Macronutrient Intake As Percentage of Total Calories

A table that shows the Recommendations for Macronutrient Intake As Percentage of Total Calories of different age groups

Age Group Protein(%) Carbohydrates (%) Fat (%)
Children (1–3) 5-20 45-65 30-40
Children and Adolescents (4–18) 10-30 45-65 25–35
Adults (>19) 10-35 45-65 25–35
Source: 2015 Dietary Guidelines.


Foods and Nutrients to Increase

The typical American diet lacks sufficient amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and high-calcium foods, causing concern for deficiencies in certain nutrients important for maintaining health. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines provide the following suggestions on food choices to achieve a healthier diet:

  1. Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark green, red, and orange vegetables.
  2. Choose at least half of your grains consumed from whole-grain foods.
  3. For dairy products, eat the low-fat versions.
  4. Don’t get your protein only from red meats; choose instead seafood, poultry, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
  5. Replace butter with oils.
  6. Choose foods dense in the nutrients potassium, calcium, and vitamin D.
  7. Increase the intake of dietary fiber.


Building Healthy Eating Patterns

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people make an effort to reduce their caloric consumption, reduce the intake of nutrient-poor foods, and increase the intake of nutrient-dense foods. To accomplish these tasks it is necessary to incorporate moderation and variety. The goal is not only choosing specific foods for your diet, but also the development of a healthy eating pattern. Several studies provide good evidence that certain dietary patterns increase overall health and decrease the risk of chronic disease. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension trial, or D.A.S.H., reports that individuals who consumed more than eight servings per day of fruits and vegetables had lower blood pressures than a control group that consumed under four servings per day of fruits and vegetables.1 Other studies investigating the benefits of the D.A.S.H. diet have also found it to be protective against cardiovascular disease and decrease overall mortality.  Vegetarian diets, which emphasize many of the same foods as the D.A.S.H.  have also been linked to a decrease in incidences of some chronic diseases. In a later section, we will explore the Mediterranean Style eating pattern. this pattern has also been found to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.

1Sacks, F.M, et al., “Effects on Blood Pressure of Reduced Dietary Sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (D.A.S.H.) Diet.” N Engl J Med. 344, no. 1 (January 2001): 3–10.Accessed June 18, 2019.

Finding balance

“Finding balance” by Miles Cave is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Figure 2.4.3: Fresh vegetables and olive oil are examples of foods emphasized in the D.A.S.H. and Mediterranean diets.

Key Takeaways

  • U.S. dietary guidelines are based on evolving scientific evidence and are updated every five years. The goals of the 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines are to prevent nutrient inadequacy, promote health, reduce chronic disease, and decrease the prevalence of overweight and obesity.
  • To have a healthy eating pattern, reduce the intake of sodium, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, and refined grains. Increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, dietary fiber, and oils.
  • Healthy eating patterns prevent chronic disease and provide nutrient adequacy.


Discussion Starter

  1. Discuss suggestions from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines that you could incorporate into your diet. How can you align your personal dietary goals with these recommendations?


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Nutrition 100 Nutritional Applications for a Healthy Lifestyle Copyright © by Lynn Klees and Alison Borkowska is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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