The New Food Guidelines: What to Eat, What’s Complicated

By Deepi Brar | January 8, 2016 | Rally Health


In case you hadn’t heard, the government just released the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. It’s based on a whopping 571-page draft report from an expert advisory committee, but there are some notable differences since we told you about the draft report in the spring of 2015. For example, the final guidelines dropped the original advice to eat less red meat or keep the environment in mind when making food choices.

In an effort to simplify a complicated topic, the guidelines talk a lot about focusing on variety and good choices and developing “healthy eating patterns.” (The Mediterranean diet is one example, and vegetarianism is another.) Old habits are hard to break, though, so there are still lots of numbers in the report.

Here are a handful: They break down a typical American 2,000-calorie-a-day diet and list how many teaspoons of oils (five a day), cups of red and orange veggies (5.5 a week), and ounces of seafood (8 a week) you should eat. And there are lots more numbers where those came from. It’s enough to make your head spin!

On the flip side, there are no more hard limits on cholesterol (yay, eggs!) and fat in general (it used to be capped at 30 percent of calories). Overall, the news is good for brunch lovers — guilt-free eggs and coffee! — but not so great for fans of dessert.

Here’s the top news:

  • Sugar is on the hit list. Added sugars are clearly bad for us, but make up about 16 percent of our calories (depending on total calories, that’s as much as 20 to 30 teaspoons a day!). The new rules slash that to about 10 percent. Just replacing sugars with fake sweeteners won’t upgrade your diet, so swap in something healthy instead, like whole fruit. That way you’ll cut down on sugar and get fiber, vitamins, and minerals, too.
  • Fat is fine — mostly. You no longer need to watch how many of your calories come from fat (versus carbs and protein). That said, do still keep an eye on saturated fats (the kinds that are solid at room temperature) or anything that says "trans" or “hydrogenated.” Saturated fats should be no more than 10 percent of calories, and you should cut out as much trans fat as possible.
  • Relax about cholesterol. While there’s no hard limit on it anymore, the guidelines still confusingly say to watch out for cholesterol. Yes, eggs are now OK — at least for most of us. Your doctor still might have something to say about it though, so as always, be sure to check before making any major changes in your diet.
  • Some of us eat too much protein. Men and teenage boys in particular are eating more meat, poultry, and eggs than they need.

Like certain Facebook relationships, some things are complicated:

  • Refined grains. When you refine a whole grain, you strip away the nutritious outer layers and are left mainly with starch. Very few Americans get enough whole grains. To boost fiber and other nutrients, the guidelines tell us to pick whole grains at least half the time. (The draft report came out even more strongly against refined grains than the final rules, often grouping refined grains with sugars. Things like white flour and white rice are mostly simple starches, and in our bodies they act a lot like sugars.)
  • Alcohol. Yes, moderate drinking can be good for your heart, but it can also cause problems ranging from accidents and falls to increased risk of breast cancer in women. If you don’t already drink, don’t start just for any health benefits.
  • Coffee and caffeine. Drinking moderate amounts of coffee, up to three to five cups, doesn’t seem to hurt, and some research shows it can be good for your health. Like alcohol, the new guidelines say to not start drinking caffeine for any health benefits, and also watch the extra calories from cream and sugar. (The draft report had said that coffee was actually good for you, but that the jury was still out on the safety of high-caffeine drinks and energy shots.)
  • Salt. The guidelines say to limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams a day (one teaspoon). Many believe that we're eating too much salt, but some experts think this limit could be tossed out like the cholesterol limit — some recent studies suggest that cutting salt may not help the heart.
  • Seafood. It’s still good for you, so aim for 8 ounces a week. It's a little tricky — toxins like mercury are real concerns, so go for a variety. (The initial report had talked about choices based on environmental concerns like overfishing, but all talk of of sustainability was dropped from the final report.)
  • Red meat. Fatty cuts are loaded with saturated fat, so if you choose to eat red meat (that’s muscle meat from any four-legged animal), pick lean cuts and eat less of the processed stuff (salami, hot dogs) that are high in salt. (The initial report had urged Americans to eat less red and processed meat for health and environmental reasons, but that little piece of advice was cut out as well.)


We eat too much sodium, saturated fat, refined grains, and added sugars.

To change that, here’s how most experts say we should eat:

  • Lots of vegetables and fruit
  • Plenty of whole grains, less refined grain
  • A variety of proteins like beans, nuts, and seeds. If you eat animal products, also have eggs and a variety of seafood and lean meats.
  • Less fatty red meat or processed meat (to cut down on saturated fat and salt). Processed meat includes red meat and poultry products like deli meats, salami, bacon, and hot dogs.
  • If you have dairy, pick low- and nonfat dairy (for less saturated fat than whole milk)
  • Moderate coffee and alcohol (though not for everyone)
  • Much less added sugar

Selected references

US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, Eighth Edition. website.

2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Advisory Report). website.

US Department of Agriculture.

Harvard School of Public Health. Healthy Eating Plate. The Nutrition Source website.

What We Eat in America. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). USDA website.


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