What Are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?

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Sometimes it seems that dietary advice is always changing—and it’s true that, as research reveals more about the interplay between individual nutrients, whole foods, and the human body, nutrition is an evolving field. As this branch of science continues to advance, one reliable resource for the latest recommendations is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is a comprehensive framework of nutrition goals and recommendations released every five years by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Although you certainly don’t need to scour every page of this 150-page document to maintain a healthy diet (and, in fact, it’s generally intended for use by health professionals), it can be a useful roadmap for personal nutrition choices.

Here’s an overview of the DGAs’ history and purpose, plus what the guidelines really mean for the average American.

History of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

For over 100 years, the U.S. government has striven to provide its citizens with accurate information about better health through proper nutrition. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that a Senate committee decided to create an authoritative statement on what it meant to eat well. As policymakers began to understand the connection between diet and chronic diseases (which, even in the ‘70s, were on the rise), they saw a need to inform Americans about the connection between diet and disease prevention.

With this in mind, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, released Dietary Goals for the United States in 1977. This report offered general nutrition best practices, such as avoiding overweight and cutting back on sugar, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.  

However, not everyone in the nutrition field was convinced of the validity of some of the claims in this document. In an effort to provide diet information truly supported by the latest science, the USDA and HHS collaborated in 1980 to create the very first Dietary Guidelines for Americans—a set of seven principles for a healthful diet.

Since 1980, the Dietary Guidelines have been updated and re-released every five years, each time with more up-to-the-minute recommendations. This schedule isn’t a simple routine. In 1990, the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act stipulated that the DGAs must be updated at least every five years based on the current “preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.”

Over time, the DGAs have evolved from a set of seven basic nutrition tips to a document that encompasses recommendations for infants, children and adolescents, adults, pregnant and lactating women, and older adults. And, unlike the overarching, one-size-fits-all guidelines of bygone days, the DGAs now incorporate considerations like an individual's cultural background, food enjoyment, and budget.

Instead of isolating the effects of individual nutrients on health, as in years past, the latest Guidelines have shifted focus to cumulative dietary patterns. Because, after all, people eat food, not isolated nutrients.

How the Dietary Guidelines Are Developed

Each new release of the Dietary Guidelines isn’t a complete overhaul. Rather, each iteration builds on the one that came before. Still, the process for updating the DGAs is impressively thorough.

First, an external Federal Advisory Committee comprised of nutrition experts reviews the current research around nutrition and human health. They then create a report on their findings. Throughout this process, American citizens are invited to participate. The committee’s meetings are open to the public, and anyone can nominate an expert or provide comments or questions they’d like the committee to address. For context, during the development of the 2020-2025 DGAs, over 106,000 public comments were submitted.

Once the committee completes its research report, the USDA and HHS use this information to craft the messaging of the new Dietary Guidelines. After a process of review and revisions, the secretaries of the USDA and HHS must sign off on the finished version of the DGAs.

Highlights of the 2020-2025 DGAs

The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines, released in 2020, is themed “Make Every Bite Count.” It revolves around four basic principles for healthy eating.

The four principles of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 include:

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

Supporting each of these four guidelines are key recommendations that provide more specific, measurable goals.

The key recommendations of the 2020-2025 DGAs are as follows:

  • Limiting added sugars to less than 10% of calories per day for people age 2 and older and avoiding added sugars for infants and toddlers.
  • Limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories per day at age 2 and older.
  • Limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day (or less for people younger than 14).
  • Limiting alcoholic beverages to two drinks or less a day for men and one drink or less a day for women.

Broken down into age group categories, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines explain how people in each stage of life can meet these goals by eating fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, proteins, oils, and beverages.

The guidelines also discuss special nutrition and lifestyle considerations for each age group, such as the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in kids’ and teens’ diet or how much seafood, alcohol, and caffeine lactating mothers should consume.

What the Dietary Guidelines Mean for You

Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are, of course, created with all Americans in mind, they’re not necessarily intended as a specific dietary how-to for the average citizen. In fact, the DGAs are primarily established for health professionals to create public policy.

The DGAs serve as the handbook for numerous federal nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). You can think of the DGAs as a governmental reference document, rather than an individual diet plan.

A Word from Verywell

If you’re interested in discovering what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend, you can easily access the document online. It certainly won’t steer you wrong for general healthy eating recommendations. For a more personally tailored diet plan, though, it’s best to consult with a registered dietitian.

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Article Sources
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  1. USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Published December 2020.

  2. Dietary Guidelines For Americans. History of the Dietary Guidelines.

  3. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Monitoring Act.

  4. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Who's Involved in Updating the Dietary Guidelines.

  5. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.