The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is published every 5 years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These guidelines are designed to encourage individuals to eat a healthful diet, with a focus on foods and beverages that promote health and prevent chronic disease.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee helps to shape the official Dietary Guidelines, and has recently published new recommendations. While these are not the official Dietary Guidelines, the USDA and HHS tend to adhere very closely to the panel’s suggestions. Some people may be left wondering what it all means, so this article will help break it all down and offer suggestions on how to apply the guidelines in real life.
What’s New in the 2015 Dietary Recommendations?
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines have made some clear changes in dietary recommendations from previous years. The 3 main points of concern and focus this year are:
- The shift from focusing on individual nutrients to encouraging overall healthy eating patterns
- A more lenient recommendation for dietary cholesterol
- Stronger focus on reducing the intake of added sugar and less of a focus on dietary fat intake
Let’s take a closer look at the specifics in each of these recommendations:
In 2010, the Dietary Guidelines focused on certain nutrients of concern and offered specific recommendations for each. This year, however, the recommendations encourage Americans to focus less on individual nutrients, and more on overall eating patterns. The panel stated that the typical American diet does not include enough fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish to promote health. While emphasizing these particular foods, they also suggest that a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet is most healthful and is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. These foods are also high in fiber, which works to help lower blood cholesterol levels. Examining the overall food intake and replacing highly processed food with “whole” foods is one key to improving health and reducing heart disease. “Whole” foods are defined as foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. A good rule of thumb for eating more “whole” foods is to think how a particular food exists in nature, before any processing occurs, and include that version of the food more often. For example, strawberry flavored snack cakes are not found in nature, but strawberries are. Therefore, choosing to eat whole, natural strawberries instead of a processed snack would be one way to increase the intake of whole foods. Eating grilled fish instead of processed fish patties would be another way to apply this recommendation. The table below gives more examples of whole vs. non-whole foods.
Low Fat Cheddar Cheese Slice
Canned Cheese Spread
Cooked Beans (red, pinto, black, etc)
Packaged, Flavored Soup Mix
Honey Whole Wheat Bread
Whole Grain White Bread
Cereal and Milk
Milk ‘n Cereal Bars
Strawberry Splash Fruit Gushers
Chicken Sandwich on Whole Wheat Bread
Frozen Microwavable Chicken Panini dinner
Canned fruit in syrup
Skinless Chicken Breast
Refined Grains (white bread, pasta, rice)
Blueberry Toaster Pastry
Dietary Cholesterol and Fat
Dietary cholesterol, the cholesterol found in food, is another focus of the 2015 Guidelines. Previous recommendations have suggested that foods high in dietary cholesterol should be strictly avoided, and individuals should consume no more than 300mg of dietary cholesterol per day. This year’s Nutrition Panel, however, has eased up on this recommendation, stating that saturated fat and trans-fat are the most detrimental to blood cholesterol levels, as opposed to dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods like meat and dairy products, which are typically high in saturated fat as well. Cholesterol in the body (blood cholesterol) is a waxy substance that is produced BY the body and needed for proper body function.
In shifting from the strict low-cholesterol diet recommendation of the past, the Nutrition Panel says that years of research and data simply do not support the idea that dietary cholesterol has a direct impact on blood cholesterol levels in most people. Foods that were previously frowned upon like egg yolks are now deemed appropriate to a healthy diet. While egg yolks do contain dietary cholesterol (187mg per egg), they also contain healthy unsaturated fats. Seafood like shrimp, lobster, and crab contain anywhere from 70-180mg of cholesterol per serving, but offer brain boosting omega-3 fatty acids that are an essential part of the diet.
The key to including these foods in the diet is moderation. If an individual has high blood cholesterol or is obese and at risk for developing heart disease they would not want to have eggs at one meal, then fried shrimp at the next Balancing foods with high dietary cholesterol content with plant based foods would be ideal.
The previous recommendation of 35% total fat intake has been dropped, and Americans are encouraged to focus not on the amount of fat consumed, but the type of fat consumed. Unsaturated fats found in fish, nuts, and vegetables oils should replace the saturated fats found mostly in animal foods like red meat. Trans fats are found mostly in processed foods that have a long shelf-life, like cookies, potato chips, and snack crackers, and should also be avoided.
The other major shift in this year’s Dietary Guidelines is the focus on reducing the intake of added sugar. Previous year’s recommendations included warnings about a high sugar diet, but for the first time the Nutrition Panel has set a limit of sugar intake to no more than 10% of daily calories. The large increase in processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and “low fat” foods have caused an increase in the overall sugar content of the typical American diet. Americans consume 20-30 teaspoons of added sugar a day, most of which comes up sugary beverages. Additionally, many “low fat” versions of foods have added sugar to replace the fat that has been removed, and the consumption of these foods has increased with the previous focus on eating a low fat diet (hence the new recommendation focusing on the type of fat consumed).
Under the new Dietary Recommendations, a person consuming 1500 calories a day should consume no more than 150 of those calories from added sugar. One gram of sugar = 4 calories. So let’s take a look of what this really means:
A 12oz regular soft drink contains 40g of sugar. That equals 160 calories from sugar in that one soft drink. So for the person on a 1500 calorie per day diet, this one can of soda makes up the total amount of added sugar recommended in one day!
Ways to Reduce Intake of Added Sugar
- Limit beverages like soda and fruit drinks and drink water instead
- Follow the guidelines to eat more “whole” foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, lean proteins (fish), and whole grains
- Eat less “processed” foods like packages convenience foods, frozen meals, sugary cereals, white breads and pasta, and processed meats
- Choose foods that contain healthy unsaturated fats instead of foods with added sugar
In summary, the Dietary Guidelines from previous years are under review since some Nutrition Panel advisors say that the old recommendations have steered individuals away from whole foods that may contain dietary cholesterol and healthy fats such as meat and eggs, thus encouraging the intake of highly processed refined carbohydrates.