Updated: Jan 16, 2021
The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) 2020-2025 was issued by The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Tuesday, December 29. These guidelines are intended to provide science-based recommendations to the American population on how to improve health through diet and nutrition to reduce chronic disease risk. The DGA must be published every five years, mandated by the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, and based on the latest scientific and medical research. As mentioned in the DGA, these guidelines are meant to aid policymakers, health professionals, local and state governments, community groups, the food industry, media, schools, and businesses to develop effective programs and policies for the general public. The DGA isn’t just a mere guideline, it arguably has one of the most powerful influences on what Americans eat. In a time where a good majority of Americans suffer from one or more diet-related diseases, it is especially important these guidelines contain the breadth of nutrition knowledge. Moreover, the fact that food security is of importance to the DGAs, and fundamentally linked to sustainable food production, the omission of food sustainability in the 2020 iteration is of concern and future inclusion is imperative.
General Dietary Recommendations
Kids In Nutrition (KIN) has utilized these guidelines as one of the sources to develop our nutrition and food sustainability curricula. Similar to KIN’s guidelines, the DGA states the importance of adopting healthy eating patterns at an early age and that the recommendations are meant to act as a “customizable framework of core elements within which individuals make tailored and affordable choices that meet their personal, cultural, and traditional preferences.” Figures 1 and 2 highlight the general dietary recommendations from the DGA.
In addition to the DGA, our curricula are also based on Harvard’s Kid Healthy Eating Plate, and the Planetary Health Diet Plate. We teach the health benefits of consuming whole grains, fruits and vegetables of all colors, unprocessed/lean proteins (fish, chicken, eggs, legumes, nuts), fats in whole-food form, and healthy plant-based oils. We also recommend minimizing the intake of added sugars, sodium, refined grains, dairy, red/processed meat, and highly processed foods as these have been shown to negatively impact human health. Though KIN’s guidelines align with parts of the DGA, we would like to highlight the differences between the two.
Red/Processed Meat & Highly Processed Foods
The DGA guidelines do not go into depth about red/processed meat as well as highly processed foods. In both our nutrition and food sustainability education curricula, we find it important to emphasize the negative health and environmental impacts of red/processed meat AND highly processed foods. However, the guidelines do make brief mention of encouraging, “relatively lower consumption of red and processed meats (page 23).”
Research on the disease implications of dairy products are mixed, and therefore not conclusive. Dairy products can be a source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and potassium, but also contain significant amounts of saturated fats, cholesterol, hormones, and growth factors.
The environmental impacts of dairy products are significantly greater and for climate impact consideration alone, plant-based options are recommended. Since our program supports the consumption of foods that simultaneously improve human health and the environment, we do not actively promote dairy products in our lesson plans. Instead, we encourage moderation of dairy foods and balanced consumption of plant-based alternatives. In line with our guidelines, the DGA includes “fortified soy alternatives” in the dairy group. We believe that nutrients in dairy can be found in other foods, therefore KIN encourages diversifying consumption with a variety of plant-based sources that can achieve a similar nutritional profile.
The DGA recommends less than 10% of calories/day for added sugar consumption for those younger than age 2. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) Scientific Report recommends reducing sugar intake to less than 6% of calories/day which aligns with the content in KIN’s nutrition curriculum.
The DGA mentions minimizing saturated fat intake to less than 10% of calories/day for those above 2 years old. Though we recommend minimizing the intake of foods that contain saturated fat (red/processed meat, highly processed foods), we believe a more food-based approach, rather than a single nutrient approach, should be taken for dietary recommendations. It’s important to make dietary decisions based on the food as a whole rather than completely discounting a food because it has saturated fat.
The DGA recommends at least half of our plates be whole grains (>3 servings), meaning the other half can be refined grains (<3 servings). As reflected in our nutrition curriculum, we believe that more whole grains is always better and that whenever possible, we should try to replace our refined grain intake with whole grains for the beneficial nutrients.
The DGA recommends consuming 8 oz eq/week, around 2 servings, of seafood and fish. Though we recognize that seafood and fish can be included in a healthy diet given the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, we also encourage consumption of plant-based alternatives (flaxseeds, walnuts, soy oil, algae, and eggs). The planetary health diet plate recommends no more than 2 servings a week which is represented in our food sustainability curriculum. Although the DGAC mentions omega fatty acid alternatives, the DGA does not.
In the 2015–2020 DGAC Scientific Report, the first-ever recommendations for food sustainability were included: “across studies, consistent evidence indicated that a dietary pattern higher in plant-based foods (e.g., vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains) and lower in animal-based foods (especially red meat), as well as lower in total energy, is both healthier and associated with a lesser impact on the environment.” However, the report “drew backlash from the meat industry” and was not included in the 2015 DGA iteration. The 2020 DGA also did not make mention of food sustainability, nor emphasize the impacts of red and processed meat on both health and the environment. As our mission is to promote healthful and sustainable diets, we firmly believe that the next DGA iteration should include a food sustainability section. It is essential that the American population understand the relationship between diet, environmental sustainability, and population health in order to support food security for current and future generations.
Though the DGA did highlight important recommendations, the guidelines appear to have not progressed much from the prior version. For the next iteration, we believe there should be more mention made of red/processed meat, highly processed foods, food sustainability, plant-based alternatives, a food-based approach, and more strict recommendations for added sugar and whole grains. We plan to submit a public comment for the next revision as well as continue raising awareness of these issues in our local communities!