The Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Yesterday the government released a report that it produces every five years called The Dietary Guidelines for Americans. I spent a few hours poking through the 112 page report and thought I’d summarize the 23 recommendations and my thoughts on the report.

Before I get into specifics I should again note that I’m not a certified dietitian, just a certified eater. I do read a lot about these things and consider myself somewhat versed in what all these recommendations are actually saying. But yea… I have no degree on my wall, so take that for what it’s worth.

Before diving into a project like this, I always ask myself two questions:

1) Who Wrote the Report? Over five years, roughly 30 people with lots of letters after their names work on this thing. I was half expecting there to be a number of representatives from large food companies on the panel that wrote the report, but that’s not what I found at all.

After spot-checking a few of the authors, they appear to be all very qualified in their fields which range from dietary studies to preventive medicine. Most of them are lifelong doctors and/or professors. I didn’t check all the authors, but didn’t find evidence of any of the ones I did check working for large food companies or lobbying firms which would’ve raised some red flags in my mind.

2) Who is the Intended Audience? This report is pretty dense at times and most of the recommendations are based on what appears to be pretty thorough research. Of course, the government doesn’t actually expect every American to read through a 112 page report.

The report is used mainly to “develop educational materials and aid policymakers in designing and carrying out nutrition-related programs…”

This is where problems can pop up because a lot of times people will develop materials or programs around only pieces of this report (the pieces that benefit them, their companies, or their constituencies) and leave the rest of the report on the wayside. The end result is almost always an incomplete picture.

So let’s get into the actual recommendations and see if anything seems especially good or bad.

Click to see a larger image.

The main pieces of the report are in four chapters and each chapter starts with a few key recommendations that are then backed by lots of graphs, charts, and data.

Balancing Calories to Manage Weight

Here are the four key recommendations from this chapter.

Prevent and/or reduce obesity through improved eating and physical activity behavior. Umm… okay. I’m not exactly impressed by this recommendation. It took five years to recommend that?

Control total calorie intake to manage body weight. For people who are overweight or obese, this will mean consuming fewer calories from food and beverages. This one may seem equally silly, but I’ve never actually read something from the government telling people to eat less. That’s a new angle.

Increase physical activity and reduce time spent in sedentary activity. America: Get off your ass.

Maintain appropriate calorie balance during each stage of life. Kids don’t need as many calories as adults. Pregnant women need a variety of different vitamins.

Ok. So the recommendations in that chapter didn’t completely wow me except for the push to eat less in general.

Foods and Food Components to REDUCE

Again, a direct call for eating less is a real change. These recommendations seem to have a bit more substance to them.


Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg and 1,500 mg for some people. This is a lot harder than it might seem. The hidden part of this recommendation which is in the data they present is that the only way to really accomplish this is to greatly reduce the amount of processed foods you consume. They recommend cooking most things at home so you can control salt.

Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids by replacing them with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. I don’t think that there’s much inherently wrong with some fats, but it does just have more calories/gram than other sources so you’re more likely to consume more calories if you eat more fat.

Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol. Again, hard to do with processed foods.

Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible, especially by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats. I was hoping for a flat out recommendation to not consume any trans fats. Given that some countries outright ban the stuff, I wish they were a bit more forceful with this one.

Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats and added sugars. Again, a direct attack on processed foods.

Limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains, especially refined grain foods that contain solid fats, added sugars, and sodium. Guess what has a lot of refined grains? Yep. Processed foods.

If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men—and only by adults of legal drinking age. This has been pretty standard for as long as I can remember.

This is a much more substantial chapter in my mind and is basically an all out assault on reducing the amount of processed foods we eat as a nation. It’s groundbreaking only in that an official government document is saying it.

Foods and Nutrients to Increase

They made it clear what we should eat less of, so let’s see what they want us to start eating more of.

Increase Vegetable and Fruit Intake. Bam. That’s about as obvious as it can get. I like it.

Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas. Again, like the focus on vegetables.

Consume at least half of all grains as whole grains. Increase whole-grain intake by replacing refined grains with whole grains. I’d like this to be even more, but the important part is that they actually recommend replacing refined grains, not just eating more grains total.

Increase intake of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or fortified soy beverages. The thing that bothers me about this recommendation is that it’s normally recommended because of calcium, but it seems to give people free reign to eat grilled cheeses for every meal. Those people would be better off by just taking a calcium supplement, in my opinion.

Choose a variety of protein foods, which include seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds. I think the behind-the-scenes message here is eat less meat.

Increase the amount and variety of seafood consumed by choosing seafood in place of some meat and poultry. I guess this is okay. I’d rather the meat be substituted more by protein rich vegetables.

Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oils. Common sense I think for a recommendation to the American people.

Use oils to replace solid fats where possible. Okie Dokie.


Choose foods that provide more potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern in American diets. These foods include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk and milk products. Sounds good to me.

This all sounds like a move in the right direction to me which is a more vegetable-based diet. Even as a pretty serious carnivore, it’s a fact that vegetables are horribly under-rated in America.

Building Healthy Eating Patterns

Select an eating pattern that meets nutrient needs over time at an appropriate calorie level. Sounds good to me. A bit generic though.

Account for all foods and beverages consumed and assess how they fit within a total healthy eating pattern. Writing things down is a great way to monitor what you eat. Not that anybody does it.

Follow food safety recommendations when preparing and eating foods to reduce the risk of food borne illnesses. Probably not a bad idea so you can avoid dying.


Ok. So I guess I don’t have a lot of negative things to say about this! With America teetering on about 2/3s of the population either overweight or obese, I hope that educators can find a way to start pushing people to make some of these changes.

You can check out the full report here which is filled with tons of graphs and data detailing the evidence supporting all of these recommendations. Some of the graphs are really interesting and shocking.

I’d love to know what you all think about these recommendations. Are there any that shocked you? What would you add to the list?

10 comments on “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans

  1. Is that an increase in the recommended calories allowance? Because everyone's already obese?
    If I work oreos into a baked good does that mean they're somehow now homemade and not processed? =P
    Thanks for the run-through!

  2. The only thing I'm not ok with is the push to eat for seafood. I really don't think oceans can support our current seafood habits and, at this point in time, farmed seafood isn't the answer in most cases. Many times it does more harm than good to the oceans.
    Otherwise it's great to sea an official report saying this stuff.

  3. The Lower Salt surprised me. You might remember that I'm already on a mission to cut back for two years now because I retain enough water as it is – lots of Sodium makes me sluggish and now, I can feel salt and sodium make my cheeks flush. Modern Domestic and I have talked about this and both agree that salt is still vital in baking for chemical and taste reasons.

    As for the seafood – interesting. The What's HOT 2011 PDF from the National Restaurant Association suggests that chefs are going to bend backwards to serve us fish we've not seen commonly so far. So perhaps, Chris, this is a good compromise for leaving over-farmed/over-harvested breeds alone for a while? I'm up for new fish and I'm up for cooking more at home. I like it.
    My recent post Revisiting the infused Gin from months ago

    1. Yea… if people were open to new seafoods, it could be done I think in a sustainable way. What will actually happen is that we'll just learn how to grow bigger salmon…

  4. I'd like a bit more emphasis on the activity. Eating right is only one side of the health coin, fo sho.

    Also, Nick, you *may* be in the 2,400 calorie range. This range they give is only a general guideline–your own body could process food slightly different than the "average" person in your group, of course, so eating what the government says you can eat may not be exactly right for you. I eat about 2,250 per day, but I'm also really active (an hour of gym almost every day) and that calorie intake is actually letting me lose 2 pounds per week–I'll eat a few hundred more per day when I want to maintain my weight, or not if I stop being as active as I am now (once bootcamp is over). Then again, most of my calories come from fruit and vegetables (the good stuff)–I don't think I'd feel quite the same or lose weight as well if I ate a lot of processed foods for the same calories. Calories are not created equal, I don't think. So I'm definitely happy about those veggie-related recommendations. I just don't view a "suggested calorie range" as a good enough indicator of healthy eating, but I know that a lot of people will use that information as their only guideline and ignore the rest. That number is what sticks in people's heads, not the "eat better, move more" recommendations. But, for some people, having it as a useful stepping stone to more conscious eating may be helpful.
    My recent post Parkour!

  5. One thing though is that it leaves a lot of room for going the other way too. For example, my family doesn't own a car so we walk almost everywhere. That means I get alot more activity than someone else in the sedentary category but it's part of my day-to-day life so I, personally, wouldn't count it toward that next bracket. *shrug* just a thought…

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Nick. Surprisingly you're the only food blogger I follow who has mentioned the report so far. I knew there was a reason you're my favorite :) Now if only the report would come right out and say "stop eating so much processed crap" instead of making people read between the lines. I suppose it doesn't matter anyway, since most people aren't going to read it, period. Thanks again for breaking it down!

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