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New Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 8 Things to Know

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The recently released “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025” provides advice on what to eat and how to meet nutritional needs, promote health and prevent chronic disease, and serves as the foundation for a variety of federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program and military rations. While a number of the updates will certainly provide better guidance to those looking to eat more healthfully, some of the guidelines are based on weak scientific evidence and may be influenced by industry lobbying and business interests. Here’s what you need to know about the latest dietary guidelines.

This year’s guidelines are titled “Make Every Bite Count.” To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the name. While I know that this title is well-intentioned, this approach has the potential to be destructive when taken too literally and could even lead to disordered eating patterns. Because, after all, not every bite has to count. There can and should be room left for food and drink that we consume sheerly for pleasure, not fuel – within reason, of course.

The guidelines sidestep scientific advice to cut sugar. Although the new guidelines were informed by an advisory committee's scientific report, officials omitted certain recommendations that would have reduced allowances for intake of added sugars, which I find highly disappointing.

For the average American, added sugar accounts for more than 13% of their daily energy intake. The five-year guidelines retain previous recommendations to limit added sugar intake to less than 10% of calories a day. So, if you're consuming 2,000 calories a day, this recommendation works out to about 200 calories (50 grams or 12 teaspoons) of added sugars.

However, a 20-person committee of scientists known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended in 2020 that the departments modify the guidelines to suggest people consume less than 6% of calories from added sugars, noting high prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other related cancers in the United States – all underlying conditions that contribute to a higher likelihood of developing severe reactions if one is infected with COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this advice to trim added sugar intake by 40% was ignored. Some think this is a result of sugar industry interests coming into play.

The guidelines also fail to properly address the harmful effects of alcohol consumption.

The advisory committee also recommended that Americans who drink alcohol should have no more than one drink a day, citing evidence that capping consumption at one drink for men may decrease the risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease compared with higher levels of consumption. The committee also cited rising rates of binge drinking and mortality from alcohol-attributable causes of death, including alcoholic liver disease. (Check out my podcast episode “The Science of Alcohol on Our Brain, Body and Spirit” for more information.)

Sadly, the federal government rejected these recommendations, too, simply repeating the previous guideline to limit alcoholic beverages to two drinks or less a day for men and one drink or less a day for women.

The guidelines emphasize the importance of making healthy eating a lifestyle change, rather than just making sporadic healthy choices here and there. The guidelines focus on the combination of foods and beverages that make up our whole diet over time, and not single foods or eating occasions in isolation. Research shows that our ongoing patterns, such as our eating habits over the course of months and years, have the greatest impact on our health.

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They also prioritize making choices rich in nutrients. Ideally at least 85% of the calories we eat are foods rich in nutrients to help us meet the recommended nutrient levels and food group recommendations. Only a small amount of calories (not more than 15%) remain for added sugars, saturated fat and, if consumed, alcohol.

This is the first time the dietary guidelines have provided guidance by stage of life, from birth to older adulthood, including pregnancy and lactation. The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025” provides guidance across all life stages and is organized by chapters for each life stage. The edition also emphasizes that it is never too early or too late to eat healthy, which I completely agree with!

The 2020 edition of the guidelines is the first to include recommendations for infants and toddlers and advises feeding only breast milk for at least six months and giving no added sugar to children younger than 2. This is a fantastic addition, as many yogurts, cereals and snacks that are targeted to this age group are loaded with added sugar. That said, I do wish they would’ve extended the recommendation of “no added sugar” – or at least very low added sugar – to all age groups.

Here's a quick overview of the four overarching guidelines in the 2020-2025 edition:

  • Follow a healthy dietary 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.

Check out the full “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025” report here.

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