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Decoding the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines Explained | UPMC Health Plan

After much anticipation, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and of Agriculture (USDA) have released their 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Dietary Guidelines gather the most up-to-date medical knowledge and scientific research, and translate those findings into recommendations for the American population. The goal: Reduce people’s risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cancer; and prolong the healthy years in our lives. What we eat affects how healthy we tend to be.

The USDA and HHS update the Guidelines every five years. In this revision, they name five central guidelines for healthy eating that people can adapt to their needs. Let’s take a look at the key recommendations: (Read the full report here.)

1. Follow a healthy eating pattern throughout life.

In general, a healthy eating pattern includes:

  • A variety of vegetables including dark green, red and orange, legumes, and starchy types.
  • Fruits, with emphasis on whole fruit.
  • Grains, at least half of which should be whole grains.
  • A variety of proteins that may include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, and soy products.

Total recommended amounts vary with daily calorie needs. For more information on individual calorie recommendations and how to work these into your eating patterns, visit the full Dietary Guidelines report or Choose MyPlate.

2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount.

Nutritional needs should be met mainly through food. The best way to do this is by including a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods from each food group. Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrition a food contains relative to the amount of calories. For example, a carrot is low in calories and contains a lot of nutrition, so it is a nutrient-dense food. On the other hand, chocolate cake contains a lot of calories but very little nutrition. It is not nutrient dense.

But sometimes it’s not as simple as looking at calories. Nuts, for example, are high in calories, but also very nutritious. So nuts are also a nutrient-dense food. That’s where the third part of this guideline comes in: amount. Even though nuts are nutritious, they have lots of calories. And too many calories from any source can contribute to unintended weight gain!

3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fat, and reduce sodium intake.

Added sugars, saturated fat, and excess sodium have all been linked to chronic diseases. They are typically incorporated into foods, not eaten on their own. So identifying them is the first step!

Foods high in added sugars include candy and desserts, sweetened beverages, many snack bars, boxed mixes, most ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, fruit snacks, and instant flavored oatmeal packets. Added sugar shows up in ingredient lists under many different names. Look for names like brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, trehalose, and turbinado sugar.

The new recommendations advise no more than 10 percent of your calories come from added sugar (note: there is no recommended limit on naturally occurring sugar in fruit, grains, and dairy). That means that for someone following a 2,000-calorie diet, no more than 200 calories per day should come from added sugar, which comes to 50 grams of sugar. One can of Pepsi has 41 grams of added sugar alone! Most packaged foods have a least a little added sugar, so it adds up quickly.

Saturated fat should be limited to 10 percent or less of total calories as well. That means no more than 22 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet. Fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, tropical oils (like coconut oil), bacon, lard, and visible beef, chicken, and pork fat have the highest amounts. Trans fat should be eliminated. Read more about all types of fats here.

The Dietary Guidelines do not place a limit on cholesterol as they have in the past. They do advise minimizing cholesterol, noting that foods high in cholesterol are often high in saturated fats. Read more about cholesterol here.

For healthy people, the Dietary Guidelines recommend a sodium intake of fewer than 2,300 mg per day. For people who have hypertension or prehypertension, they recommend 1,500 mg per day. The average American consumes more than 3,400 mg per day, so it’s definitely worth looking at your own intake! Most sodium we eat comes from foods that are prepared, in boxes, cans, or the freezer. Only about 10 percent actually comes from the salt shaker! Check the nutrition facts to keep an eye on sodium content.

4. Make healthier food and beverage choices.

Chapter 2 of the Guidelines compares current eating patterns in the U.S. to the recommendations, and suggests changes we can all make. These include:

  • Consume more vegetables instead of foods high in calories, saturated fats, or sodium.
  • Consume more fruit in its whole form, in greater variety. Use it as a side dish and to replace high-sugar desserts.
  • Replace refined grains with whole grains, and cut back on refined grain desserts. Choose lower-calorie whole grains, like popcorn without butter.
  • Consume more dairy products, in nutrient-dense form (low fat or fat free). Watch for added sugar.
  • Opt for more seafood, fish, legumes, and soy products in place of some beef and pork each week. Some people, especially teen boys and men, should reduce protein and replace it with vegetables or another under-consumed group.
  • Use vegetable oils instead of butter or coconut oil in cooking, or use foods that naturally contain healthy oils, like nuts, avocados, or fish. Choose salad dressings and spreads made with oils instead of solid fats.
  • Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women, two for men. If you don’t drink, don’t start. Do not consume alcohol if you’re under the legal age or pregnant. 

5. Support healthy eating patterns for all.

This section provides some guidelines and tips for health professionals to encourage healthy eating in their clients. It has some tips on prioritizing clients’ needs and meeting them where they are in terms of change.


Our health coaches are trained extensively in this area. They can help you develop goals and strategies to implement these new Dietary Guidelines into your (and your family’s) eating patterns. If you’d like more information on health coaching, contact a health coach at 1-800-807-0751; Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., or Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.