2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines For Americans: A New Focus

By: Sandra Walz, PhD, RD

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, updated every five years, provide essential science-based nutrition knowledge and recommendations to public health professionals and policymakers. A large body of evidence now shows that healthy eating patterns and regular physical activity can aid people in achieving and maintaining good health and reduce the risk of chronic disease throughout life.

For the first time ever, the Dietary Guidelines focus on these healthy eating patterns, rather than amounts of specific nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water). Why? People do not consume foods, nutrients, and beverages in isolation, but rather, in combination forming an overall eating pattern. Over the course of time, dietary components of an eating pattern can have interactive and potentially cumulative effects - positive, neutral, or negative - on public health.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines offer five simple approaches to healthy eating:

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the lifespan. All food and beverage choices matter. Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Healthy U.S. Style, Healthy Mediterranean Style, and Healthy Vegetarian eating patterns are encouraged.
  2. Focus on variety, nutrient density, and amount. To meet nutrient needs within calorie limits, choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods across and within all food groups in recommended amounts. Nutrient-dense refers to foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that contribute to health effects with little or no solid fats, added sugars, refined starches, and sodium.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats, and reduce sodium intake. Consume less than 10% of calories per day from added sugars, less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats, and less than 2,300 milligrams per day of sodium. Added sugars include syrups and caloric sweeteners such as sugar, corn sweetener, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and honey. Saturated fats typically are found in coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, butter, and meat fat. Sodium primarily is consumed as salt and is found in foods and condiments such as sandwich meat, pizza, meat- poultry- seafood-dishes, soups, ketchup, pickles, olives, mustard, salad dressings, and seasonings. Cut back on foods and beverages higher in these components to amounts that fit within healthy eating patterns.
  4. Shift to healthier food and beverage choices. Choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices. Consider cultural and personal preferences to make these shifts easier to accomplish and maintain. Consume alcohol in moderation – up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men – and only by adults of drinking age.
  5. Support healthy eating patterns for all. Everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple settings nationwide, from home to school to work to communities.

These Dietary Guidelines should be applied in their entirety and include physical activity to maximize their synergistic effects. An overall healthy eating pattern includes:

  • a variety of fruits and vegetables. Eat the colors of the rainbow. Include whole fruits and legumes (beans and peas).
  • grains, at least half of which are whole grains. Whole grains consist of unrefined, ground, crushed, rolled, cracked, or flaked grains whose principal components (bran, germ, and endosperm) are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the original grain.
  • fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages.
  • a variety of animal and plant protein foods (seafood, lean meats, poultry, eggs, milk, legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy products).
  • oils.
  • limited saturated fats, trans fats that are mostly found in processed and hydrogenated foods, added sugars, and sodium.

Healthy eating, by following a healthy eating pattern, is one of the most powerful tools we have to reduce the onset of disease. For most people, achieving a healthy eating pattern will require changes in food and beverage choices. The current Dietary Guidelines encourage a gradual shift to a healthier eating pattern without increasing overall calorie intake. Although individuals ultimately decide what and how much to consume, combined efforts by all segments of our society, including the public health system, are needed to improve the health of current and future generations.

Sandra M. Walz, PhD, RD
Department of Nutrition

West Chester University of Pennsylvania


US Department of Health and Human Services; US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; December 2015. http://www.health.gov/DietaryGuidelines. Accessed April 3, 2016.
US Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2008. ODPHP publication U0036.
US Department of Health and Human Services; US Department of Agriculture. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; February 2015. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report. Accessed April 3, 2016.