We all consider ourselves food “experts” regardless of our backgrounds, age, gender or social economic status. We eat to live (or in some cases live to eat) and frankly, food is the core of our existence. During COVID-19, we have rediscovered the “joy of cooking” at home while facing the stark reality of food insecurity and food supply disruption in the world around us. For such a simple four-letter word, the meanings and associations surrounding food are most complex. Food is enjoyment, status and survival, but bottom line, it’s about health. With the 2020-year end release of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the message is clear: it’s time we, as a society get serious and make every bite count. We are what we eat.
What are Dietary Guidelines?
Even though the release of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) receives more attention within the food and nutrition communities, the final product is public-facing. The DGAs serve as the underpinning for all federal government nutrition programs, including the School Nutrition Program; Women, Infant and Children Program (WIC); and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They are evidence-based guidelines from which food recommendations are made to promote optimal health and reduce chronic diseases across our lifespan.
The first edition of the guidelines was published in 1980, and by law, every five years, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) must publish a new edition. The Dietary Guidelines, as outlined by law, must be based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge (as per the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Scientific Report)1 and contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public on what to eat and drink to promote health, reduce risk of chronic disease, and meet nutrient needs.2
The “Heart” of the Guidelines
Unless we perceive a benefit, following recommendations based on science is not a “no-brainer” (as evident in so many areas). Over the years, one could say the recommendations have not changed significantly, but unfortunately neither have our eating habits. We tend to look for “magic bullets” rather than focus on the basics. These four guidelines2 are the foundation for moving forward on a more healthful pathway, regardless of age or ethnicity. We can do this!
1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage. This is the first time since the original DGAs were released in 1980, that the guidelines address all life stages, including pregnancy and lactation, birth to age 24 months, and all age segments of adulthood. It is never too early or too late to eat healthfully.
2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions and budgetary considerations. It’s about eating a variety of nutrient dense foods rather than a nutrient. The guidelines continue to highlight the three food patterns from the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: (1) Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern, (2) Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern and (3) Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern. A healthy dietary pattern can benefit all individuals regardless of age, race, or ethnicity, or current health status.
3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits. We need to shift our focus to eating more nutritious food (fresh, frozen or canned). We have gaps! Consistent with previous guidelines, we continue to under consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy, which are the main sources of the under consumed nutrients of public health concern: calcium, vitamin D, potassium and dietary fiber.
4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages. The guidelines remain the same, focusing on consuming 10% or less of daily calories from saturated fat and added sugar (like sugar sweetened beverages), less than 2,300 milligrams sodium per day, and, if you consume alcoholic beverages, drink in moderation by limiting intake to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
The Reality Check
We are still in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic and we have to think about how our health status relates to what we’re experiencing. As noted by the Dietary Guidelines Scientific Advisory Committee, “as more is learned about infection by SARS-Co V-2 and the development of COVID-19, it is clear that it has significant nutritional implications. These parallel epidemics, one noninfectious (obesity and diet-related chronic diseases) and one infectious (COVID-19), appear to be synergistic. Those at most risk for the most serious outcomes of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, are people afflicted by diet-related chronic diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease).” Additionally, “the consequences of physical isolation and financial disruption by the threat of COVID-19 infection has led to significant increases in food insecurity and hunger, further increasing susceptibility to both infectious and diet-related chronic diseases.” Finally, it is noted that “the interrelationships between chronic diseases, COVID-19, and social determinants of health, emphasize the critical importance of improving dietary patterns, demonstrating the central role of nutrition and healthy dietary patterns in susceptibility to both infections and diet-related chronic diseases in these parallel epidemics.”.1 The committee recommended these relationships be studied in future guidelines.
We Can Do Better
Too many times, we “fight” about what should or should not be included in the Dietary Guidelines, but when it comes down to the bottom line, it’s still about health and our behavior. Regardless of our position along the food value chain — farmer, processor, dietitian or consumer — this is our “wake up” call. We can do better. Check out www.myplate.gov to get started on a journey of making every bite count!
1. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Scientific Report
2. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
3. How do we make every bite count? Infographic, Dietary Guidelines for Americans Downloadable Graphics