Make every bite count – towards your health.
I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve used this mantra in articles over the years. While very few (if any) of us have perfected this statement, the foods and beverages you consume profoundly impact your health over time. Science has proven this time and again that consistent dietary patterns and choices of healthy foods means a healthier you.
That’s why I was pleased that the recently released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, make a point of emphasizing this exact sentiment. Instead of focusing on individual nutrients, foods, or food groups, the spotlight is on your dietary pattern over time and how the foods you choose act synergistically to affect your health. In other words, what matters most is that your daily food decisions, from infancy to old age, ideally should lean towards choosing more health-promoting foods over not-so-healthy foods over the course of your lifetime.
What are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
In case you’re not familiar with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, every five years since 1980, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services jointly publish science-based advice on what to eat and drink with the aim of promoting health and to prevent chronic disease.
The 2020-2025 edition couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. The year 2020 is forever marked with the devastating toll of COVID-19. Early on it was noted individuals with obesity or chronic diseases were likely to suffer more severe illness and death. When about 74 percent of adults are overweight or obese in the U.S. and 60 percent of adults have one or more diet-related chronic disease (i.e., heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, cancer), it’s a stark wake-up call of the necessity for improving dietary habits. That’s where the Dietary Guidelines can help. Learning how to personalize food and beverage choices based on your food preferences, cultural traditions, and what fits your budget, is possible while still keeping your focus on achieving good health.
Unfortunately, as stated above, the coronavirus pandemic was a glaring reminder of how Americans are falling short in meeting the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines. Diet-related chronic disease and obesity continue to steadily rise as a ubiquitous major public health threat, especially when fighting a novel virus. That’s why this edition’s mantra of “Make every bite count with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” is more important than ever.
What do the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say?
Since the first edition of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans debuted 40 years ago, there have been certain areas of focus based on scientific knowledge at that time. For this edition, the various policymakers, along with nutrition and health professionals and scientists, have developed four guidelines meant to encourage healthy eating patterns at each stage of life. The guidelines’ job is to spearhead with recommendations for making tailored and affordable food choices emphasizing healthy eating habits for living and enjoying an active, independent, disease-free lifestyle over the years.
Here’s a quick overview of each of the four guidelines from the 164-page document:
1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
No matter what life stage you are in, it’s never too late to start eating more healthfully. Beginning at birth, it’s preferable if infants are breastfed through the first year of life. Then, from their first birthday through older adulthood, it’s important to continue to follow a healthy dietary pattern across the lifespan to meet nutrient needs, achieve a healthy body weight, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
All of us, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or current health status, will benefit from eating health-promoting foods. Due to our diversity, the Dietary Guidelines allows you to customize food choices based on your ethnic heritage and cultures, helping you create more nutrient dense meals.
3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits.
What should your food choices look like? Every day, choose plenty of fruits and veggies of all kinds, nuts, oils, and seeds, beans, peas, and lentils, whole grains, eggs, dairy, and other animal proteins such as lean beef, poultry, pork, lamb, and fish. Basically, what Mother Nature naturally provides. Whole, minimally processed foods are your best bet for supplying the nutrients your body needs to function properly while remaining healthy.
4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.
Excesses of sugar, fat, sodium and alcohol, can be harmful to your health. While it’s always best to eat mostly healthy foods, the Guidelines realistically, have recommended following the 85-15 rule. Most of the calories you eat daily – around 85 percent – should be from nutrient-dense foods of veggies, fruits, whole grains, dairy, and protein. The remaining calories – around 15 percent – can include calories from added sugars, saturated fat, or from alcoholic beverages.
Healthy eating adds up to good health
Healthy eating makes a difference, especially when practiced over a lifetime. No matter what your age, small dietary changes, one meal and one day at a time, each add up to reaching your best health. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Swap calorie-laden, sugary beverages for non-calorie beverages such as water, seltzer, or unsweetened coffee or tea.
- Add a fruit and/or vegetable to every meal.
- Snack on nuts or fruits instead of pretzels or potato chips.
- Add beans or lentils to soups, salads, and side dishes.
- Have regular meal times and avoid skipping meals.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. Good health doesn’t just happen. It’s like a plant that needs watered regularly to live long and healthy. Your daily eating habits are no different. When you make the choice to make every (if not most) of your bites count, that’s when you’ll notice the biggest influence on your long-term health. It all begins bite-by-bite.
Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in dietetics and nutrition from the University of Kansas, and a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for local clinics, an adjunct professor at an area community college where she teaches basic nutrition, and a freelance health and nutrition writer. She is the author of The Nourished Brain: The Latest Science On Food’s Power For Protecting The Brain From Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook. Visit her website at www.eatwelltobewellrd.com.