By: RADM Paul Reed, MD, ODPHP Director/Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health
As we celebrate the beginning of this New Year, it has never been more evident that we should all strive to make changes that support a healthy way of life. As health professionals, one important change we can encourage of our patients is to consider the health implications of what we eat and drink. The scientific connection between food and health has been well documented for decades, showing that healthy dietary patterns can help people achieve and maintain good health while reducing their risk for chronic disease through all life stages. On December 29, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 to support policy makers and health professionals in helping Americans to consume a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet.
The new Dietary Guidelines has four core components:
First, it encourages healthy dietary patterns at every life stage from infancy through older adulthood. For the first time since the 1985 edition, this edition includes recommendations for infants and toddlers as well as continuing the emphasis on healthy dietary patterns during pregnancy and lactation. This approach recognizes that each life stage is distinct. Nutrient needs vary over the lifespan and each life stage has unique implications for food and beverage choices and disease risk. Furthermore there is an important connection between early food preferences in children and eating behaviors throughout the life stages. Health professionals can use the guidelines to make sure their dietary recommendations match the life stage of their patients and reflect the latest evidence related to health and nutrition.
Second, regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, or current health status, a healthy dietary pattern can benefit everyone. The new Dietary Guidelines provides a framework that individuals can customize to enjoy nutrient dense food and beverage choices that reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations. Health professionals can use this framework to help patients choose a healthy dietary pattern and “make it their own” by selecting healthy foods, beverages, meals, and snacks specific to their needs and preferences.
Third, the Dietary Guidelines focuses on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, while staying within calorie limits. Nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. More than 80 percent of Americans have dietary patterns that are low in vegetables, fruit, and dairy. The inadequate intake of nutrient-dense foods and beverages across life stages has resulted in underconsumption of some key nutrients such as calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D. Health professionals can encourage patients to make meals more nutrient-dense by increasing the vegetable content of mixed dishes or substituting less nutrient-dense ingredients, like refined grains, with more nutrient-dense ingredients, like whole grains.
The final component is limiting foods and beverages high in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limiting alcoholic beverages. In a nutrient-dense diet, most nutritional needs are met by 85% of the calories consumed, meaning that at every life stage, especially in the birth to toddler age groups, meeting food group recommendations with nutrient-dense choices takes up most of a person’s daily calorie needs and sodium limits. To help patients avoid exceeding these limits, health professionals can encourage patients to avoid or limit sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks) and sweetened coffees and teas (including ready-to-drink varieties) and instead, try chilled, plain water or sparkling water with a squeeze of fruit for a splash of flavor.
These four core components are what drive the newest edition of the Dietary Guidelines. As you talk with your patients about healthy eating, it is important to remind them that it is never too early or too late to find a healthy dietary pattern that works for them. Regardless of your life stage –infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, pregnancy, lactation, and older adulthood— the Dietary Guidelines can help Americans lead healthier lives. So, let’s start 2021 together by making every bite count!