FAQs about the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

What is different about the 2015-2020 DGAs compared to previous years’ recommendations?

The recommendations over the years have been somewhat consistent, but recently there has been more scientific evidence supporting the role of healthy eating patterns, including both food and beverage intake, in preventing chronic disease. Instead of focusing on individual nutrients, the new guidelines reflect the importance of supporting individuals and communities to shift their attention to overall nutrition and physical activity patterns to improve health.

How much sugar is ok? What does less than 10% of total calories look like?

According to these recent DGAs, based on a 2000 calorie/day diet for a healthy adult, less than 10% of calories from added sugar would translate to less than 200 calories/day from added sugar.

Here is the math:

  • One gram of sugar = 4 calories
  • 200 calories = 50 grams of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar = 4 grams
  • 50 grams of sugar = 12.5 teaspoons of sugar

Therefore, according to the new guidelines, a person who eats 2000 calories/day should eat less than 12.5 teaspoons of added sugar/day. Practically speaking, this is still a lot of sugar, which we now know plays a significant role in increasing risk for cardiovascular disease by elevating triglycerides levels in the blood. You should check the nutrition facts label to choose foods that contain 6 grams of sugar or less (1.5 teaspoons) per serving.

What about milk?

Recommended milk choices continue to be fat-free and 1 % cow’s milk for children over 2 years old. Fortified soy milk is also part of the dairy  group, but other milks such as almond, rice, coconut and hemp milks are not included in the dairy recommendations as they do not provide nutrients  equivalent to cow’s milk. Children who are 2-3 years old should have 2 cups per day, children 4-8 years old should have 2 ½ cups per day, and children 9 years old and up through adulthood should have 3 cups per day.

How do you tell which grains are healthy?

The whole grain should be the first ingredient listed on the food label. Check the nutrition facts label for grains that contain at least 3 grams of fiber per serving and grains that have at least 50% of total weight as whole grains. For example, a food that has at least 16 grams of whole grains per ounce (30 grams) is at least half whole grains.

Which foods have healthy fats and which do not?

Again, go back to the nutrition facts label. Choose foods with limited saturated fats. On the nutrition facts label “low in saturated fat” is defined as 1g saturated fat or less per serving. As much as possible avoid trans-fats such as those found in hydrogenated oils.

In general, fats that are liquid at room temperature (oils) are healthier than fats that are solid at room temperature (lard). Oils provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Healthy oils are naturally found in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives and avocado. Some naturally occurring oils such as coconut and palm oil have a different composition and have more saturated fats than other oils.

What about cholesterol?

The previous 2010 guidelines recommended limiting cholesterol to 300 mg/day, but in 2015-2020, based on current U.S. intake and minimal new data, the advisory committee declared that dietary cholesterol was no longer considered a “nutrient of concern.” Existing data regarding the relationship specifically between dietary cholesterol and risk of cardiovascular disease in the absence of saturated fat intake is unclear. Therefore, as stated in the current guidelines, eggs and shellfish, which are high in cholesterol and not saturated fat, can be healthy sources of protein.

What are healthy proteins?

Protein intake should come from a variety of sources, including lean animal protein, milk/dairy, plant sources (beans, peas, nuts and legumes) as well as fish and seafood. Lower intake of meats, especially processed meats and poultry is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

What are low sodium foods?

Whole foods that are not processed (e.g. they do not come in a can, box or frozen meal) are naturally low in salt. You can also identify low sodium foods by reading the nutrition facts label. One teaspoon of salt contains 2300 grams of sodium. According the FDA food label guidelines, a food is considered low sodium if it contains 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.

What does “nutrient dense foods” mean?

Foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals and other substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intake are considered to be “nutrient dense.” These foods promote positive health effects and contain little or no solid fats, added sugars, refined starches or sodium.