New USDA Nutrition Guidelines: Here’s What You Need to Know
When you cook a meal, do you think about the food groups? If you are a parent, you likely try your best to expand your kids’ diets beyond breakfast cereal, yet you may fall short when it comes to your own nutritional needs: 60% of American adults have at least one diet-related chronic disease. And a healthy diet is important not only for a healthy body but also for graceful aging and lifelong well-being.
To help us put the latest research into practice on our plates, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) are re-issued every 5 years. The newest report offers a fresh perspective on how to fill our plates, with tips we can all use and special considerations for each age group.
Follow a healthy eating pattern and make every bite count
The primary food groups (vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein) are still essential elements of the new dietary guidelines, but rather than focusing on 2 grams of protein here and 5 grams of whole grains there, the report recommends that 85% of our calories come from nutrient-dense foods prepared without extra sugar, salt, and saturated fats. This shifts the focus toward eating a nutrient-rich diet, and away from following rules such as “low-fat” or “low-carb.”
Choose nutritious foods 85% of the time, allowing 15% of your calories to be discretionary—including foods with added sugars or alcoholic beverages.
Ready to try? Here are some tips, taken from the report.
1. Select nutrient-dense food over less healthy options.
The report defines nutrient-dense food as “[v]egetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.”
Over time, each small choice of a nutrient-dense alternative over the sugar- or fat-heavy version can add up: Choose plain shredded wheat cereal over frosted shredded wheat cereal; low-fat, plain yogurt over sugary flavored yogurt; sparkling water over sweetened beverages; and low-sodium canned products over high-sodium versions.
2. Be mindful of portion size, whether you eat out or at home
When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and prioritizing nutrient-dense foods, the size of your portion should be a conscious choice. To avoid letting a restaurant or recipe dictate how much you eat, get your MyPlate plan and follow your personalized recommendations.
3. Grocery shop with a meal plan.
When you arrive at the grocery store tired, hungry, and without a plan, it can be hard to think beyond convenient “ready-to-eat foods.” The problem with these foods is that you have no control over the ingredients, and they are often full of excess fat and sugar.
To avoid relying on prepared and fast food, the report recommends that we plan meals ahead. Spending some time each week planning menus and making your grocery list so you make more informed choices about ingredients and preparation methods for yourself and your family. Make it easier by repeating healthy dishes that work for your family every week!
4. Give children healthy options on a routine basis.
Set your children up to prefer healthy foods by giving them plenty of nutrient-dense foods when they are toddlers, particularly before they are 3 years old. Repeated exposure at this age is critical for children to remain open to new foods, so try to offer them a variety of choices.
Have children who are already reluctant to try healthy foods? You are not alone: the DGA notes that as children grow up, they are prone to eat less of their recommended fruit and vegetable intake. Counteract this by letting them help you choose among healthy options when grocery shopping and encouraging them to participate in meal prep. (Engaging them in the process can help them become invested in trying all the components of a healthy meal.) When introducing new foods, invite your child to try small tastes in a non-threatening way, giving them a chance to discover if they like something with zero pressure.
While eating a variety of foods is ideal, if your little one only likes a few vegetables for now, don’t worry too much: you can serve them on repeat. And, whatever age your children may be, you can instill good habits by modeling healthy eating for them.
5. Get the nutrients you need at each stage of life.
With the exception of babies younger than 6 months of age, all Americans should eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and protein to get the calories they need. And based on our stage of life, certain types of nutrient-rich foods should be prioritized, with special attention paid to young children and pregnant women. Focus should also be directed to common areas where most Americans fall short of nutritional recommendations:
- Birth to age 2: This is a critical time when children need each small bite to count. Beginning around 6 months of age, parents also have the opportunity to shape the child’s lifelong food preference by establishing positive experiences with nutritious foods as a supplement to infant formula and/or breast milk.
- Childhood and adolescence: Children have similar nutritional needs to adults, but among American children, special attention is needed to make sure kids meet recommended guidelines for dairy consumption (or healthy dairy alternatives) and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. For teenage girls specifically, the DGA encourages parents to make sure they are eating enough protein.
- Adulthood: Most adults currently do not eat enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and therefore do not get enough dietary fiber. Replace sodium- and saturated fat-heavy foods with fiber-rich ones.
- Pregnancy and Lactation: While pregnant and during lactation, continue to have a healthy diet, and be sure to enjoy thoroughly cooked seafood that is high in omega-3 fatty acids to aid in your child’s cognitive development. Folic acid supplements are also recommended during pregnancy.
- Adults age 60 and older: After age 60, it is important to maintain a healthy weight and to eat a diet that prevents chronic disease. Be mindful that your calorie needs decrease with age, so load your diet with efficient, nutrient-dense foods, especially protein-rich foods to encourage healthy muscle mass, and foods with vitamin B12, which is less easily absorbed as we age.
6. Seek opportunities to learn more, and put nutrition recommendations into action.
Nearly all Americans can improve their dietary pattern and those of their family members. Look for opportunities to learn more about cooking, meal planning, and nutrition. We love the free resources on MyPlate.gov for individuals, parents, and teachers. You will find meal planning tools, lesson plans, a MyPlate app and app scavenger hunt activity, videos, and a nutrition quiz that gives you personalized tips and recommendations for balancing your diet in light of your calorie and nutrient needs.
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