Dietary Guidelines to Eat and Stay Healthy

Blog Post

Stephen W. Farrell, PhD, FACSM
The Cooper Team
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January 20, 2022

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services first published the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in 1980. Since that time, the DGA have been updated every 5 years. The purpose of the DGA is to help all people make healthful choices with regard to dietary intake and regular physical activity. The overarching goal of DGA is maintaining good health and reducing the risk of chronic disease throughout all stages of the lifespan. Before we continue any further, it is important to emphasize that the DGA are  evidence-based (i.e., published research studies) and not opinion-based (e.g., many popular diet books). The most recent DGA were released on December 29, 2020. The key recommendations are shown below:

Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage:

  • For about the first 6 months of life, exclusively feed infants human milk. Continue to feed infants human milk through at least the first year of life, and longer if desired. Feed infants iron-fortified infant formula during the first year of life when human milk is unavailable. Provide infants with supplemental vitamin D beginning soon after birth.
  • At about 6 months, introduce infants to nutrient-dense complementary foods. Introduce infants to potentially allergenic foods along with other complementary foods. Encourage infants and toddlers to consume a variety of foods from all food groups. Include foods rich in iron and zinc, particularly for infants fed human milk.
  • From 12 months through older adulthood, follow a healthy dietary pattern across the lifespan to meet nutrient needs, help achieve a healthy body weight, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

The core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:

  • Vegetables of all types, dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low–fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils and  nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts.

Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages

  • Added sugars- less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2. Examples of added sugars include non-diet soda, imitation fruit beverages, candy, syrup, and table sugar.
  • Saturated fat- Less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. An example of foods  that are high in saturated fat include full-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream).
  • Sodium- Less than 2300 milligrams per day – and even less for children younger than age 14. Foods that tend to be high in sodium include chips, pretzels, pickles and other condiments, and canned soups.
  • Alcoholic beverages- If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation - up to one drink* per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men - and only by adults of legal drinking age. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.

Additional key recommendations are as follows:

  • Americans of all ages should meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans** to help promote health and reduce the risk of chronic disease
  • Individuals should aim to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Individuals should strive to consume more nutrient-dense foods and beverages. A nutrient-dense food or beverage is one that provides vitamins, minerals and other substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes, with little or no solid fats and added sugars, refined starches, and sodium. All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free/low-fat dairy, and lean meats and poultry are nutrient-dense foods provided that they are prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, and sodium.
  • At the same time, individuals should shift away from food and beverage choices that are less nutrient-dense

So, there is overwhelming agreement at this point that Americans consume too much saturated  fat, added sugars, and sodium and that most individuals would do well to reduce their intake of these substances. On the other hand, we are not consuming enough unrefined plant-based foods or animal-based foods that are low in saturated fat. To magnify this problem, only about 20% of American adults meet the current Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

*One alcoholic drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor

*The Physical Activity Guidelines for healthy American adults between the ages of 18-65 state that a minimum of 150 minutes each week be spent in moderate intensity aerobic activity, and that resistance exercise should be performed at least 2 days per week. Children between the ages of 6-17 should be physically active for at least 60 minutes each day including aerobic, muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening activities.


Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Executive Summary.


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