What Should I Eat?!

How the dietary guidelines for Americans have “evolved”

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As nutrition advice continues to evolve, some of it will stay the same, such as whole and minimally processed foods are the best, and make sure you eat your fruits and vegetables. That said, a recent look at the history of dietary guidelines for Americans shows that although some things are immutable in their goodness, others come and go and come back again. In responding to ever-changing nutrition science, we may risk trading simple, solid basics for a flurry of latest findings whose complexity can bury key messages. And dietary guidelines do matter. Our country’s nutrition policies not only provide guidance to the general population; they also require that all feeding programs align with them, including school lunches and breakfasts and meals served to soldiers. Read on to see what I mean.

Below is a summary of Dietary Guidelines from 1980 to 1995, published every 5 years. The strikeouts and additions reflect minor changes, generally for the better, during this 15-year time span:

  1. Eat a variety of foods (1980, 1985, 1990).
  2. Maintain ideal (1980) desirable (1985) healthy (1990) weight. In 1995: Balance the food you eat with physical activity—maintain or improve your weight.
  3. Avoid too much (1980, 1985) Choose a diet low in (1995) fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.
  4. Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber (1980, 1985). In 1995: Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grain products.
  5. Avoid too much sugar (1980, 1985). In 1995: Use sugars only in moderation.
  6. Avoid too much sodium (1980, 1985). In 1995: Choose a diet moderate in salt and sodium.
  7. If you drink alcohol (1980) alcoholic beverages (1985, 1990, 1995), do so in moderation.

In 2000, the Dietary Guidelines ushered in a new millennium and took on a more sophisticated air. Instead of 7 recommendations, there were 10, with much more scientific background added along with information about dietary patterns and food safety. In 2005, the guidelines continued to balloon. What was once a snappy brochure in 1980 had now morphed into a 70-page policy tome with 41 recommendations grouped under 9 major headings, with lots of detail added. It’s easier now to provide links in case you’d like to ferret out the key messages for each:

  1. Adequate nutrients within caloric needs https://tinyurl.com/yc3wgevr
  2. Weight management https://tinyurl.com/y7qxfns4
  3. Physical activity https://tinyurl.com/y89y78u8
  4. Food groups to encourage https://tinyurl.com/yaywe88u
  5. Fats https://tinyurl.com/y8b9g7qq
  6. Carbohydrates https://tinyurl.com/yd6rhsxc
  7. Sodium and potassium https://tinyurl.com/yd6rhsxc
  8. Alcoholic beverages https://tinyurl.com/ycap6hhg
  9. Food safety https://tinyurl.com/yapvpnky

In 2010, the emphasis shifted to solid fats and added sugars—that is, to reduce the discretionary calories spent on them. Moreover, in a much-needed return toward simplicity, the “MyPlate” guide showing what your plate should look like in terms of recommended portions of food types was released in 2011. It was quickly improved upon by Harvard Medical School, which released its Healthy Eating Plate the same year (see below).

The Harvard Eating plate can actually stand in for the latest 2015–2020 guidelines (see box below). Fill half your plate with a variety of fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains, and the remaining quarter with lean protein. The perimeter of the plate talks about healthy fats and non-sugary beverages, with examples. The only guideline not represented is the last one, which is a call to action for us all (especially important in the current political climate). It reminds us that “everyone has a role in helping to create and support healthy eating patterns in multiple setting nationwide, from home to school to work to communities.”  Amen!

2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

  1. Follow a healthy eating pattern across the life span.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
  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.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume an eating pattern low in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. 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.
  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.

So for 2018, my advice, distilled down to ONE guideline is: “Look at Your Plate,” and print out a copy of The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate for the fuller picture.


Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and HHS (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015-2020.

Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHES, “Lessons from 40 Years of Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” IDEA Fitness Journal, Oct. 2017.

Kelsey N. Graham, Med, CHES, “Eating Right: What the Science Says, IDEA Fitness Journal, Nov. 2017.

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