2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: What Parents Need to Know

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While many of us look to the New Year to make positive health and lifestyle changes, this year is extra special when it comes to the nation’s health thanks to the announcement of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The guidelines have clear implications for federal nutrition policy, influencing everything from the national school lunch program to the advice you get at the doctor’s office.

Much of the dietary advice in the new guidelines remains unchanged. The nutrition “biggies” are consistent with what many of us have heard before; eat more fruits and vegetables, keep your splurges to a minimum, and keep balance, variety and moderation top of mind. As nutrition science evolves, a new set of guidelines sheds more light on nutrition science details and updates what we know about eating right. Basically, the 2015 guidelines encourage individuals and families to eat more of these foods:

  • A variety of vegetables, including dark green, red and orange, and legumes (beans and peas)
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including lean meats and poultry, seafood, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), soy products, and nuts and seeds
  • Oils, including those from plants: canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean and sunflower. Oils are also in nuts, seeds, seafood, olives and avocados

They also advise us to moderate caffeine and alcohol intake, limit sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and limit foods high in sodium, such as processed foods like pizza, sauces and canned soups. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe if we keep hearing these messages over and over (kind of like when your mom would say “eat your veggies” at the dinner table), at some point we might actually listen.

While many of these dietary recommendations remain the same, here are the three major changes:

  1. An actual sugar LIMIT. Instead of reducing sugar intake, the new guidelines recommend reducing added sugar – the kind put in foods during processing, not the natural kind found in fruit and dairy – to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. For someone on a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Most Americans get twice that. For reference, a can of Coke has 25 grams of sugar or 6 teaspoons; half of the daily-recommended amount.
  2. There’s no recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol (they used to recommend limiting it to 300 mg per day) because new research suggests that the cholesterol we get from food doesn’t contribute to high blood cholesterol levels.
  3. A focus on choosing different proteins – their subtle way of encouraging you to eat less meat – by replacing meat, poultry or eggs with seafood twice a week, and replacing some meat or poultry in mixed dishes with legumes, nuts and seeds.

When reading these recommendations and looking at my family’s table, fridge and pantry, I find that there’s greater value in making small changes vs. a huge overall in my family’s diet and lifestyle. In my house, I consciously add more plant-based foods to meals. For instance, I love making spaghetti and meat sauce and adding chopped mushrooms and carrots in the sauce.

I try to cut back on sugar in food products, including cereals and snacks and cooking where it’s relevant. We generally keep it to one sweet item per day and don’t have sugar sweetened beverages, except for special occasions.

I also try to serve more unsaturated fats, especially those found in vegetable oils and fish and nuts, than saturated, which is found in butter, whole milk, and meat not labeled lean. No doubt, you’ll read your share of criticisms of the dietary guidelines. That being said, I certainly won’t be keeping a score sheet on whether or not my family eats perfectly (ding! you’ve reached your sugar limit!).

Katie Serbinski, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and mom of two boys under two. She’s the founder of Mom to Mom Nutrition, a healthy food and lifestyle blog where she shares her “me time” with other health-minded parents.

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