The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Dietary Guidelines are released every five years and form the basis of all federal food and nutrition policies, programs and communications for the next half decade.
The guidelines serve as a critical tool for health professionals to help people make healthy choices in their daily lives to help prevent chronic disease and enjoy a healthy diet.
A strong recommendation within the guidelines can have a major impact on the daily eating habits of Americans. It offers a simple message that pulls together the many complex choices in creating healthy eating habits into a single picture.
Guideline #3 has many important implications. It says, “Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.”
The complete Dietary Guidelines text clarifies this recommendation: For a healthy diet, most people – adults and children – need to get about 85% of their calories from nutrient-dense foods and beverages. “Most calorie levels have less than 15 percent of calories remaining after meeting food group recommendations through nutrient-dense choices.”
If that sounds like a lot of math-speak, let’s break down what it means for day-to-day eating choices.
Added Sugars: Very Few People Have Room for 10% of Calories
Lots of discussion has noted that although the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended a limit of no more than 6% of calories from added sugars, the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans identifies a limit of no more than 10% of calories.
However, unless your calorie needs are over 3000 calories a day, you don’t have room for more than 15% of calories from foods and drinks that aren’t nutrient-dense.
For virtually every age group, the dietary patterns in the appendix of the Dietary Guidelines demonstrate this in practical terms.
- The category in the dietary patterns called “Calories for Other Uses” also includes foods high in saturated fat (like butter, high-fat meats and ice cream), alcohol, portions of refined grains and potatoes or other starchy vegetables beyond amounts in the recommended healthy patterns.
- For many adults and children, there’s only room for “extra” (less-nutritious) foods that total 6-13% of their calories.
- Those “extra” calories include more than added sugars. Individual food and drink choices in this category can vary. But the Dietary Guidelines state for most people, only half of these “Calories for Other Uses” will come from added sugars.
Here’s a practical example:
If you are a typical adult who needs about 2000 calories a day, these patterns show that after meeting recommendations, you have 12-13% of calories “for other uses”. That’s about 240 calories a day.
If you chose a 12-ounce regular soft drink (156 calories), that would leave only 84 additional calories.
- That’s enough for 1 additional slice of refined bread or 1/3 cup of refined pasta.
- OR 1/3 of a small order of French fries.
- OR a high-fat meat (like spareribs or a cheeseburger) to replace a lean meat portion.
- OR 1/2 a small single-serve bag of potato chips.
What About Alcohol?
There’s been a lot of discussion about how the advisory committee’s recommendation that alcohol should be limited to no more than one drink per day for both men and women was ignored. The one drink per day for women and two drink per day for men limit remained the same in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. AICR has noted that for cancer prevention, the advisory committee’s recommendation was sound.
But the reality is that most men don’t have room within their allotment of calories “for other uses” for two alcoholic drinks per day along with their food choices with added sugars, high-fat foods and extra portions of grains and meats.
Special Call-Out to Adults 60 and Older
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans include a special focus on healthy eating throughout life. For adults ages 60 and older, the call to zero in on nutrient-dense foods receives extra emphasis.
Older adults generally have lower calorie needs, but similar or even increased nutrient needs compared to younger adults. Nutrient density is particularly important to this age group.
Clearly, there are wide differences in calorie needs within this 60+ age group. It includes joggers and people with physically active jobs as well as people with muscle loss, multiple chronic diseases and impaired ability to get around. And other factors that affect nutrient needs and absorption of nutrients create differences among needs of older adults.
Regardless, for most older adults, metabolism slows and daily calorie needs are about 200 calories lower after age 50 or 60.
- For women over age 60, except for those who get more than an hour of moderate physical activity each day, calorie needs generally leave room for only 100-140 calories from added sugars, saturated fat and starchy foods beyond the basic pattern as well as any alcohol.
- For men and women over age 60, it becomes more and more important to be selective about the many potential “extras” in eating habits – and to choose those “extras” more occasionally instead of daily.
Key Practical Steps to Nutrient Density
Nutrient-dense foods are those that deliver nutrients you need without excess calories. Take these steps to meet the recommendation to focus on nutrient-dense foods and beverages:
Watch out for foods with a “health halo”.
A bar, cereal, frozen dessert, yogurt or energy drink, for example, might emphasize high content of protein, fiber or some vitamin or mineral. Only when you check the Nutrition Facts label do you see high content of saturated fat, added sugars or both. Foods like this can make calories soar even in a moderate portion.
The Dietary Guidelines emphasize – consistent with AICR’s Recommendations – that a healthy diet is one that helps you reach and maintain a weight that is healthy for you. Research is clear that excess body fat increases risk of at least 12 different kinds of cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Many nutrient-dense foods, especially non-starchy vegetables, allow you to eat filling portions with relatively few calories. But even for healthful, nutrient-dense foods, consistently choosing portions that are too large can send total daily calories beyond what you need. That’s why AICR developed the New American Plate, which focuses on both the proportion of different foods on your plate as well as the portion sizes you choose.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans note that Americans typically eat excessive amounts of refined grains and meats (especially processed and high-fat meats). Individuals differ in how their food choices compare to the recommended dietary patterns. The key point is that the call for more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans is not calling for a larger plate. It means cutting back on the foods currently getting too much of your plate.
Create more variety among healthful foods you eat.
To get the widest range of nutrients and healthful phytochemicals, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans again emphasize the importance of several servings each week of dark green vegetables and of red-orange vegetables (like carrots, tomatoes and winter squash). The guidelines also advise replacing processed or high-fat meats (such as hot dogs, sausage, and bacon) with seafood; beans, peas and lentils; and nuts, seeds and soy foods.
AICR’s recommendation to limit red and processed meat is primarily based on evidence linking excess amounts with increased risk of colorectal cancer. A side benefit of taking this step is that it gives you more room for high-fiber, microbiome-feeding beans and other pulses, and nutrient-rich seafood.
Make “healthy” fit your needs and preferences.
The new federal dietary guidelines call out more strongly than ever to customize your selection, cooking style and flavoring of nutrient-dense foods and beverages to fit your cultural traditions and personal preferences.
Health professionals encourage people to adapt eating habits because of medical conditions or risk factors and still enjoy food that is flavorful and delicious. The same is true of the healthy eating patterns defined by the latest dietary guidelines.
Just as the AICR Cancer Prevention Recommendations are a blueprint from which you can create a lifestyle that reduces your risk of cancer, look at the new federal dietary guidelines as a framework for a wide range of personal choices that add up to promote good health.