10 Key Points from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

A nutritionist breaks down the USDA 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines and gives you simple takeaways.

Tofu and Veggie in Rice Bowl
Sally Vargas

The USDA recently published its new Dietary Guidelines, but between the pandemic and politics, that fact may have completely passed you by! 

These nutrition recommendations come out every five years and are based on reams of scientific data. The tagline this time around is Make Every Bite Count, and it emphasizes nutrient-rich foods with minimal empty calories. 

While it’s full of fascinating stuff (at least to me!), the document also happens to run nearly 150 pages long.

To save you the hassle of wading through every detail, I’ve pulled out the highlights, as well as a dozen recipes to bring good nutrition right to your table. 

2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines Highlights

  1. Eat fruits and vegetables in abundance. The guidelines advise eating plenty of produce in a rainbow of colors. Indeed, for someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, the recommendation is 4 1/2 cups of fruits and vegetables combined. That’s a level only a small fraction of Americans are meeting. The good news is that fresh, frozen, and canned all qualify. Follow these tips to get more produce on your plate throughout the day. 
  2. Opt for whole grains. When it comes to grains, whether it’s the cereal in your breakfast bowl or the rice in your stir fry, be sure to choose whole grains at least half the time. That means whole oats, brown rice, unpearled barley, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread. Whole grains deliver more fiber and nutrients and help to keep blood sugar steady in a way that more heavily processed carbohydrates do not. 
  3. Watch the sugar shaker. Keep added sugar to less than 10 percent of total calories. Translation: for a 2,000 calorie diet, no more than 200 of those calories (50 grams or 12 1/2 teaspoons ) should come from added sugar (cane sugar, agave, and high fructose corn syrup, for example). Since 40 percent of our daily intake of added sugar comes from soda, coffees, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages, swapping water for any of the above is an excellent place to start scaling back. One new recommendation in the updated guidelines is that sugar be avoided altogether for babies under age two. 
  4. If you drink, do so in moderation. According to the guidelines, this means one drink or less a day for women and two drinks or less for men. A drink is considered 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. And if you think you can save up your drinks over a few days to enjoy them all in a single evening, the recommendations say otherwise. 
  5. Make nutrient-dense choices. The guidelines focus on all the food decisions you make throughout the day and how that can add up to a healthier diet overall. It’s the difference between eating sugar cereal or oatmeal at breakfast; choosing carrots instead of chips with your sandwich at lunch; deciding to grill chicken at home instead of picking up a bucket of take-out.
  6. Emphasize unsaturated fats. The guidelines advise keeping saturated fats to less than 10 percent of total calories (that’s 22 grams a day for a 2,000 calorie diet). These are the not-so-healthy fats found in the likes of red meat, sausage, butter, salami, and cheese. Start reading food labels to get a sense of the saturated fat in the food you buy. And start experimenting with foods rich in healthy fats, such as nuts and seeds, nuts butters, avocado, and olive oil. 
  7. Eat from the sea. Just 10 percent of Americans are eating the recommended 8 ounces of seafood per week, a source of protein that delivers heart healthy omega-3 fats as well as a slew of nutrients. The guidelines also recommend seafood during pregnancy because of its positive association with cognitive development in children. The one caveat, particularly for pregnant and lactating women, is to look for seafood that’s low in the environmental toxin mercury, such as salmon, sardines, freshwater trout, and clams. 
  8. Scale back sodium. Forty-five percent of adults are living with hypertension, a condition that can be improved by cutting sodium intake. The aim is to get the daily total under 2,300 milligrams. The good news for home cooks is that most of the sodium in our diet is added during processing (think canned soups and salty snack foods). That means you are ahead of the game when you start with whole, minimally processed foods and prepare them in your own kitchen. There’s no shame in relying on take-out or convenience foods when needed, but the more home cooking the better when it comes to sodium. 
  9. Introduce allergens early. For folks with little ones, the guidelines recommend introducing potentially allergenic foods in the natural course of feeding solids to an infant. Starting peanuts within the first year, for example, reduces the likelihood that a child will develop an allergy. Other common allergens include tree nuts, milk, eggs, and shellfish. Regardless, talk to your pediatrician before introducing foods, particularly if you have a family history of allergies. 
  10. Aim for the 85/15 approach. The idea here is that you don’t have to achieve dietary perfection to be healthy. Fill up on nutritious, wholesome foods 85 percent of the time, leaving room for the likes of birthday cake or your favorite chips 15 percent of the time. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of this, don’t. Take baby steps. Pick one recommendation to focus on at a time. It’s a work in progress!

In the meantime, here are 12 delicious ways to eat in a dietary-guidelines-friendly way