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Understanding the New Dietary Guidelines

by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Manager, Ceres Community Project
February 2016


The USDA Health and Human Services published its new 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans on January 7, 2016. The guidelines serve as one of the most important science-based tools to advise Americans on how to eat a healthy diet, and are the backbone of the nation’s food policies. As such, these guidelines are extremely important for our health and should follow closely the recommendations given by the Advisory Committee – the body tasked with studying scientific evidence on how our dietary patterns, including specific foods and nutrients, affect  health outcomes.

dietary guidelines

These new guidelines are definitely an improvement over the old ones and two big highlights are the recommendations for people to include lots more vegetable and fruits, not only in volume, but also in variety; and to cut back on added sugars.
Unfortunately, the actual guidelines are not as comprehensive and beneficial as they could be, and many of the Advisory Committee’s recommendations not adopted. In particular, the committee had advised that sustainability be considered as a critical component of our nation’s food policies, and that Americans be encouraged to reduce consumption of red and processed meats, noting that their review of current research showed “the major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

This is something we care deeply about at Ceres, and our menu and purchasing decisions reflect our belief that personal and planetary health are woven together. If we don’t care for our land and soil, we won’t be able to continue meeting the food needs of our growing population.


Let’s look at the final guidelines:

  1. 1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan.
    All food and beverage choices matter.

  2. 2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. 
    To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts.

  3. 3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. 
    Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.

  1. 4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. 
    Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices. Consider cultural and personal preferences to make these shifts easier to accomplish and maintain.

  1. 5. Support healthy eating patterns for all. 
    Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work to communities.


Here is a closer look into what a healthy eating pattern is, according to the new guidelines, along with my commentary to help you make sense of it

(my comments in italics):

Eating an appropriate mix of foods from the food groups and subgroups—within an appropriate calorie level—is important to promote health. Each of the food groups and their subgroups provides an array of nutrients, and the amounts recommended reflect eating patterns that have been associated with positive health outcomes. Foods from all of the food groups should be eaten in nutrient-dense forms.

Healthy intake of vegetables:

Include a variety of vegetables from all of the five vegetable subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other. These include all fresh, frozen, canned, and dried options in cooked or raw forms, including vegetable juices. The recommended amount of vegetables at the 2,000-calorie level is 2½ cup-equivalents of vegetables per day (minimum!). In addition, weekly amounts from each vegetable subgroup are recommended to ensure variety and meet nutrient needs.


Healthy intake of fruits:

The fruits food group includes whole fruits and 100% fruit juice (I wish they would have separated juice from whole fruit). Whole fruits include fresh, canned, frozen, and dried forms. The recommended amount of fruits at the 2,000-calorie level is 2 cup-equivalents per day. One cup of 100% fruit juice counts as 1 cup of fruit. Although fruit juice can be part of healthy eating patterns, it is lower than whole fruit in dietary fiber and when consumed in excess can contribute extra calories (it’s not just about the calories, it’s about the sugar!). Therefore, at least half of the recommended amount of fruits should come from whole fruits. When juices are consumed, they should be 100% juice, without added sugars. Also, when selecting canned fruit, choose options that are lowest in added sugars. One-half cup of dried fruit counts as one cup-equivalent of fruit. Similar to juice, when consumed in excess, dried fruits can contribute extra calories.

I believe juice should be limited as much as possible and mixed with water if consumed at all to lower its natural sugar content. Juice has no fiber and often no significant vitamin and mineral content (especially when pasteurized) and can spike blood sugar, causing a number of harmful health consequences.

Healthy intake of grains:

Choose whole grains and limit the intake of refined grains and products made with refined grains, especially those high in saturated fats, added sugars, and/or sodium, such as cookies, cakes, and some snack foods. The grains food group includes grains as single foods (e.g., rice, oatmeal, and popcorn), as well as products that include grains as an ingredient (e.g., breads, cereals, crackers, and pasta). Whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, and oats) contain the entire kernel, including the endosperm, bran, and germ. Refined grains differ from whole grains in that the grains have been processed to remove the bran and germ, which removes dietary fiber, iron, and other nutrients. The recommended amount of grains at the 2,000-calorie level is 6 ounce-equivalents per day. At least half of this amount should be whole grains.

This is pretty good and I hope someday we will see information here about other issues with processed grains such as in cereals, breads and crackers, as well as the benefit of organic grains (for example, if you are concerned with toxic residue exposure, commercial whole grains might be worse than the nutrient-void processed grains. Organic whole grains are the best choice especially when considering the safety of GMO crops).

Healthy intake of dairy: 

Healthy eating patterns include fat-free and low-fat (1%) dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages (commonly known as “soymilk”). Soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D, are included as part of the dairy group because they are similar to milk based on nutrient composition and in their use in meals. Other products sold as “milks” but made from plants (e.g., almond, rice, coconut, and hemp “milks”) may contain calcium and be consumed as a source of calcium, but they are not included as part of the dairy group because their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages (soymilk). The recommended amounts of dairy are based on age rather than calorie level and are 2 cup-equivalents per day for children ages 2 to 3 years, 2½ cup-equivalents per day for children ages 4 to 8 years, and 3 cup-equivalents per day for adolescents ages 9 to 18 years and for adults.

I wish this guideline would mention the importance of the quality of the ingredients. Drinking low-fat or fat-free milk addresses two issues: the fact that people (in general) are getting too many calories, so consuming a low-fat dairy product will provide less calories than the full fat version (in theory, as long as folks don’t drink more of it than the recommended amount); and the fact that toxins are fat-soluble and tend to concentrate in fat, making full-fat milk from commercial cows more toxic than non-fat commercial milk. Considering these issues, the guideline is helpful. However, from a nutrition stand point, whole foods are more nutrient dense and that goes for dairy too: full-fat milk has a combination of nutrients that is more balanced and provides satiety in a way that the low- and fat-free versions do not. The key here is to consume full-fat versions only if they are at the very minimum organic, and ideally 100% grass-fed.

I also have to mention that soy milk is very processed and when not organic, it is mostly from genetically modified soy beans, not to mention that there are usually multiple ingredients added to it, such as sugar, carrageenan, salt, flavors, and more. Furthermore, soy is high in phytoestrogens, which can mimic estrogen in the body, and therefore should not be consumed daily.

Healthy intake of protein: 

Include a variety of protein foods in nutrient-dense forms. The protein foods group comprises a broad group of foods from both animal and plant sources and includes several subgroups: seafood; meats, poultry, and eggs; and nuts, seeds, and soy products. Legumes (beans and peas) may also be considered part of the protein foods group as well as the vegetables group. Protein also is found in some foods from other food groups (e.g., dairy). The recommendation for protein foods at the 2,000-calorie level is 5½ ounce-equivalents of protein foods per day. A specific recommendation for at least 8 ounce-equivalents of seafood per week also is included for the 2,000-calorie level.

As mentioned before, they failed to advise against the high consumption of red and processed meats. Processed meats have been found to be carcinogenic and should definitely be on a limit or eliminate list. Red meats can be very nourishing and are most nutritious from 100% pasture-raised cattle that is not confined and does not eat a grain diet. Nutritional profiles of commercial versus 100% grass-fed animals are very different, especially the ratio of inflammatory to anti-inflammatory fatty acids (more anti-inflammatory in grass-fed animals). I certainly don’t think vegetarianism is for everyone, but I do believe (and so does the advisory committee) that most people could benefit from limiting the amount of red and processed meat they eat, especially when derived from commercially-raised animals.

Healthy intake of oils: 

Oils are fats that contain a high percentage of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and are liquid at room temperature. Although they are not a food group, oils are emphasized as part of healthy eating patterns because they are the major source of essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Commonly consumed oils extracted from plants include canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. Oils also are naturally present in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados. The fat in some tropical plants, such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil, are not included in the oils category because they do not resemble other oils in their composition. Specifically, they contain a higher percentage of saturated fats than other oils. The recommendation for oils at the 2,000-calorie level is 27 g (about 5 teaspoons) per day.

This is another major point of disagreement for me. There is plenty of evidence pointing to industriallyprocessed seed oils as contributors to chronic illnesses. In most cases, natural fats from coconut and palm oils, as well as grass-fed butter and ghee, are much heathier than the processed vegetable oils listed above. I guess it might be hard for the USDA to base a recommendation on grass-fed animals, or on oils that come from tropical regions, especially since it would go against their own saturated fat recommendation, however, I suggest each person does their own research on this subject. The only point we all agree on is in the consumption of olive oil, which, when 100% extra virgin, is one of the most healing foods in the world (the Mediterranean diet’s most prized ingredient is olive oil, and research has shown that the healthiest people consume as much as 1 liter a week!)

Saturated fats:

The main sources of saturated fats in the U.S. diet include mixed dishes containing cheese and meat, or both, such as burgers, sandwiches, and tacos; pizza; rice, pasta, and grain dishes; and meat, poultry, and seafood dishes. Although some saturated fats are inherent in foods, others are added. Healthy eating patterns can accommodate nutrient-dense foods with small amounts of saturated fats, as long as calories from saturated fats do not exceed 10 percent per day, intake of total fats remains within the AMDR, and total calorie intake remains within limits. When possible, foods high in saturated fats should be replaced with foods high in unsaturated fats, and other choices to reduce solid fats should be made.

We do need some saturated fats for physiological functions, so we shouldn’t eliminate saturated fats, but we want to pay close attention to the quality of saturated fats.

Trans Fats:

Individuals should limit intake of trans-fats to as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans-fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils in margarines, and by limiting other solid fats. A number of studies have observed an association between increased intake of trans-fats and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This increased risk is due, in part, to its LDL cholesterol-raising effect. There is absolutely no need for us to consume trans-fats and we should eliminate them completely from our food choices.

Healthy intake of sodium: 

The scientific consensus from expert bodies, such as the IOM, the American Heart Association, and Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees, is that average sodium intake, which is currently 3,440 mg per day, is too high and should be reduced. Healthy eating patterns limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day for adults and children ages 14 years and older and to the age- and sex-appropriate Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) of sodium for children younger than 14 years.

A small amount of unrefined sea salt can be very healing and provide minerals. The sodium we want to avoid is what is hidden in processed/packaged items and in table salt.

The guidelines do propose some clear shifts to help us adopt some of these recommendations:

They have also included recommendations for more exercise, which is a major contributor to well-being: since only 20 percent of adults meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activity, “most individuals would benefit from making shifts to increase the amount of physical activity they engage in each week. Individuals would also benefit from limiting screen time and decreasing the amount of time spent being sedentary.”

What do you think of the new guidelines? Do you have any questions? Please share your thoughts with us!