40 Years of Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Dec 14, 2017

The history of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) provides a fascinating glimpse into what has stayed the same (eat plenty of fruits and veggies) and what has changed (dietary cholesterol isn’t so evil after all) in the past four decades.

Issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the DGA have amassed immense influence since the first ones were published in 1980. All U.S. nutrition policy, dietary guidance and feeding programs must align with the DGA, including

  • nationwide school lunch and breakfast programs,
  • WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children),
  • nutrition programs for older adults, and
  • meals served by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

And that’s not all: From food marketers to dietitians to cookbook authors, a vast swath of professionals monitor changes in the DGA for clues on where nutrition science is going and advice on helping Americans to eat better. With that in mind, let’s review where the DGA came from, how they’ve changed and where they are today.

1980: Short and Sweet

Federal food and nutrition recommendations had been around for more than a century, but the first official Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out in 1980, published as a short brochure called Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The brochure provided seven concise recommendations for preventing chronic disease in healthy people, based on the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1979 Surgeon General’s Report (DGAC 2015).

DGA 1980:

  1. Eat a variety of foods.
  2. Maintain ideal weight.
  3. Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
  4. Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber.
  5. Avoid too much sugar.
  6. Avoid too much sodium.
  7. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.

1990: Keeping It Positive

A 1985 version made only one change (“ideal weight” became “desirable weight” in the second guideline), but significantly, this release had the backing of the first Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). Then, in 1990, the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act passed, mandating that the USDA and HHS issue a Dietary Guidelines report every 5 years.

The 1990 guidelines were presented in a food-focused and positive way (DGAC Report 1990). “Maintain desirable weight” changed to “Maintain healthy weight,” as the DGAC felt “healthy weight” had a clearer definition; and information about body composition and waist-to-hip ratio was added. The guidelines added portion-size suggestions and upper limits for intake of total fat (30% of calories or less) and saturated fat (10% of calories or less) (DGA 1990).

The guideline “Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber” changed to “Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products,” emphasizing foods that people readily understood, rather than abstract nutrients.

DGA 1990:

  1. Eat a variety of foods.
  2. Maintain healthy weight.
  3. Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
  4. Choose a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, and grain products.
  5. Use sugars only in moderation.
  6. Use salt and sodium only in moderation.
  7. If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation.

2015–2020: Getting Better All the Time

Fast forward to 2015. The title of the latest DGA reflect that they cover 5 years, not just one. That was a welcome change, as was the recommendation about coffee—you may be glad to know the DGAC concluded that moderate consumption can be part of a healthy diet. Low-calorie sweeteners, especially aspartame, were reviewed and deemed safe (DGA 2015–2020).

Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was on the DGAC and says they reviewed the evidence on fat extensively. He adds, “The committee recommended saturated fat in the diet be replaced by unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fatty acids, and that replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates is not beneficial for the prevention of heart disease.”

DGA 2015–2020’s Five Overarching Guidelines:

  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.
  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.

To learn what nutrition experts think is next for the DGAs and see all the years of the Dietary Guidelines in chart form, please see “Lessons From 40 years of Dietary Guidelines for Americans” in the online IDEA Library or in the November 2017 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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