The guidelines, which outline what Americans should eat at every stage of life, include advice for babies, but everyone should reduce their intake of sugar and alcohol.
The “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” are updated every five years. The ninth edition arrived just as we headed into 2021, with advice as well as an update on how well we’re doing.
As before, the report urges Americans to eat more fruit and vegetables and whole grains than we normally do. It also includes recommendations for babies and toddlers for the first time.
The guidelines influence food stamp policies and school lunch menus and can push food manufacturers to change their products. They build on previous editions and a report by a scientific committee released in July 2020.
But government officials at the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services can override the scientific committee, and this year they did, rejecting stricter targets on alcohol and added sugar.
The report’s advice is familiar. Overall, we should be eating across all food groups, in a recommended balance, and "limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages."
The average American diet scores a 59 out of 100 on the Healthy Eating Index, which measures how closely a diet aligns with the Dietary Guidelines.
How much sugar is safe to eat?
The guidelines previously recommended that Americans eat no more than 10 percent of their calories in added sugars — a considerable cut from what we do consume. It stuck with that advice, although the scientific committee asked for a cut to 6 percent.
The scientists noted that sweeteners, especially in beverages, contribute to obesity. Seventy-four percent of American adults are overweight or obese, with extra pounds that raise their risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
We consume way more than 10 percent of our calories from added sugars — American adults actually get about 15 percent of our calories, on average, from added sugars, while children consumer about 17 percent, half in the form of drinks.
The committee stated that babies and toddlers should consume zero added sugar. To do so, parents will need to change their ways, since nearly all tots now do get some sugar other than what’s naturally found in food. Infants get about a teaspoon a day, and toddlers six. The new report reflects this advice.
How much alcohol is safe to drink?
The guidelines recommend no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and two for men, sticking with its previous position, although the advisory committee wanted to drop the recommendation for men to one drink. It cited evidence linking alcohol to several cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
The report acknowledges evidence that “suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death,” and that alcohol has been found to increase the risk for some cancers even at low levels of consumption.
For the first time, it states clearly that the limits are for the day, rather than the week. The previous report could be read to mean that a man could safely binge drink if he stayed within 14 drinks a week.
Discussing both alcohol and added sugars, the publicity for the new report says that it "did not include changes to quantitative recommendations as there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law," the dietary guidelines website explains, "As in previous editions, limited intake of these two food components is encouraged."
How much protein should we eat?
Someone eating 2,000 calories a day (that’s a lot, see here for information on how to assess your own needs) might aim for five and a half ounces of protein foods a day — or by the week, 26 ounces of meat, poultry, or eggs; 8 ounces of seafood; and 5 ounces of nuts and seeds.
Many Americans aren’t eating enough protein, and nearly 90 of them should be eating more seafood, the same portion that is falling short on vegetables. The report suggests swapping seafood or beans, peas, and lentils for processed or high-fat meats like hot dogs, sausages, and bacon
Recommendations for children
The broadest guideline is to "follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life of stage."
"For about the first six 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," the guidelines state. If human milk is unavailable, infants should be fed "iron-fortified" formula during the first year of life.
Breast milk contains nutrients important for a child’s development. However, the report recommends also giving babies vitamin D. At six months, babies should get "nutrient-dense" foods along with "potentially allergenic foods" like peanuts, eggs, and cow’s milk. There may be a window in which a baby can best adapt to new foods.
Women who are pregnant or lactating should consume at least eight and up to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood each week, from choices lowest in mercury, which include shrimp, salmon, and tuna.
Overall, nearly all of us are due for improvement, the report says. “It’s about the pattern of eating, not just healthy choices here and there…. Research shows that the ongoing pattern of an individual’s eating habits has the greatest impact on their health.”
February 16, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN