What Are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Thanks to the countless ways we consume information—television, magazines, social media, websites, and more—we are constantly told which foods we should eat and which we should avoid or consume in limited amounts. But not every source of nutritional information relies on solid, research-based evidence—and that can leave you feeling confused, discouraged, and frustrated about how to best nourish your body.

Enter the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). These guidelines, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health, provide sound, evidence-based advice on what people of all ages and stages of life should eat and drink daily to achieve optimal health and combat chronic disease. Here’s a closer look at the latest recommendations.

Why Do the DGAs Matter?

As research shows, Americans don’t follow recommended dietary guidelines, and our health is suffering. Seventy-four percent of adults are overweight or obese and six in 10 are living with one or more diet-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. By adopting the habits recommended by the DGAs, it’s possible for people to reduce their risk for both of these chronic conditions, as well as cancer and hip fracture.

The DGAs also identify key nutrients of concern that the typical American diet falls short of and stresses the importance of consuming certain nutrient-dense foods that supply them. Three of these nutrients—calcium, potassium, and vitamin D—are found naturally in a variety of dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. Fiber is also a nutrient of concern.

Translating the DGAs to Your Plate

The DGAs emphasize that it’s never too late to start eating better and urge us to “make every bite count” with four core recommendations.

1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.

A dietary pattern is the total of what you eat and drink. To create one, eat a variety of these nutrient-dense foods and beverages from all of the food groups:

  • Vegetables of all types
  • Fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, plus lactose-free or fortified soy beverages and yogurts
  • Protein, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food such as seafood and nuts

2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense foods and beverages.

The Guidelines provide a framework that can be adapted to reflect your individual health and lifestyle needs, unique food preferences, cultural and family traditions, and budgetary constraints.

3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits.

Nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components with little or no added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.

4. Limit foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, as well as alcoholic beverages.

Many of us exceed the daily recommendations for sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar, which can increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems. While you don’t have to eliminate them completely, it is necessary to make sensible choices and opt for nutrient-dense foods first. When it comes to alcohol, women are advised to limit to one drink a day and men to two drinks a day.

MyPlate is a visual tool that can help bring the DGAs to life on your plate. It recommends filling one-half of the plate with fruits and vegetables, one-quarter of the plate with starches, and one-quarter of the plate with a protein. Include a portion of low-fat or nonfat dairy milk, soymilk, or yogurt with your meal.

Dairy Foods and the DGAs

The DGAs recognize that dairy foods play an important role in healthy eating patterns from infancy through adulthood. In fact, about 90% of Americans could benefit from adding an extra serving of low-fat or fat-free dairy food to better meet daily nutrient goals and optimize overall health across the lifespan.

From infancy through pre-school ages, dairy foods help build a foundation for healthy eating habits that will likely last a lifetime. They also support overall growth and development.

Dairy products support bone mass which may prevent osteoporosis later in life. They also deliver key nutrients that support immune function.

During adulthood, intake of low-fat or fat-free dairy foods is linked to a reduced risk of several chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They also play a vital role in bone health, as bones achieve peak bone mass in early adulthood.

Older adults are at higher risk for health conditions related to changes in bone and declining muscle mass. The high-quality protein content of dairy foods can help to preserve muscle. Key nutrients in dairy foods also contribute to the bone remodeling process where old bone tissue is removed, and new bone is formed.

Small Shifts Add Up to Big Benefits

Because it can be overwhelming to make too many habit changes at once, focus on making small shifts in the right direction to get started. Once the new habit becomes part of the daily routine, move on to the next one and so on. With time, you will establish a healthy eating pattern that aligns with the DGAs to help you feel well and live your best.