Family at the grocery store.

“I heard that this wasn’t good for you,” or “I read in a health magazine not to eat after 8 p.m.”

Patients often come into our office with specific questions about what they should and shouldn’t eat. The Dietary Guidelines established by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) outline how people can improve their overall eating patterns.

The revisions won’t shock you – it’s much of what we already know – eat in moderation, eat a variety of foods, choose colorful options – but the newest set of Dietary Guidelines, published every five years, reflect that it’s not just an individual food item that matters, it’s the overall eating pattern we develop over time that fosters health and reduces disease risk.

That’s good news for choice and selection – making healthy food decisions doesn’t have to look the same way every day. Just as your weekly schedule flexes and changes, so will your eating patterns. It’s important to make all food choices with nutrition in mind.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020)


  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.
    • TIP: Create a sustainable food plan. Include all food groups throughout the day: lean proteins, veggies and fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats. If you don’t have veggies at lunch, make sure you have them with dinner.
  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.
    • TIP: Choose foods that are closest to their natural state. A whole sweet potato will provide more nutrients than chips. Chips are processed; they don’t include the skin (fiber source) but they do include extra sodium and fat. A piece of fresh fruit will have more nutrients than fruit juice. Fresh fruit is lower in calories, has fiber and is unpasteurized giving it a much higher nutritional value.
  3. Limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats and reduce sodium intake. Consume food 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.
    • TIP: Avoid canned veggies. Sodium preserves the cell walls of vegetables to prevent colorful mush. Choose fresh or frozen veggies when possible. If canned is your only option, rinse the veggies in water first.

    Dietary Guidelines Vocabulary

    • Shift: Instead of increasing overall intake, substitute less healthy choices with nutrient dense foods.
    • Nutrient dense: Foods that provide the most “bang for your buck” for nutrition. Nutrient dense foods contain a higher ratio of nutrients to calories. Example: whole wheat bread vs. white bread. Stripped of its shell and germ, white bread doesn’t provide the fiber or vitamins of whole wheat. Just be careful, the ingredient list must start with “whole wheat” to ensure the benefit.
    • Eating pattern: The combination of foods and beverages individuals eat over the course of a day, week or year. An eating pattern encompasses each component of what you consume.
  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.
    • TIP: Don’t drink your calories. We often don’t realize that what we drink contributes to our overall calorie intake. Not only that, but a 12-ounce can of soda can have 39 grams (10 teaspoons) of sugar! With just one can of soda, you’ve already hit 85 percent of your daily recommended sugar intake. Aim to meet your nutritional needs primarily from foods, which provide the most nutrition.
  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.
    • TIP: Keep junk food out of common areas. Make healthy foods visible so you are more likely to make a good choice. Out out of sight, out of mind! At home, keep processed snacks on a higher shelf. At work, replace the candy bowl with fresh fruit.


March 14, 2016 | by Tracey Graber RD, CDCES