Eating Well at Brown

Dietary Guidelines

What are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and MyPlate?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are issued and updated every 5 years by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The purpose of the guidelines is to provide advice for Americans about making informed food choices and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.

MyPlate goes along with the Dietary Guidelines and replaced the food guide pyramid (MyPyramid) as the new symbol for healthful eating in the United States. MyPlate illustrates what portions of the different food groups can look like divided out on a plate in order to be representative of a balanced diet. From the Myplate website, "MyPlate illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet using a familiar image-a place setting for a meal. Before you eat, think about what goes on your plate or in your cup or bowl." 

The Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate emphasize the importance of eating a variety from the different food groups each day, but keep in mind that the most recent dietary guidelines have a strong focus on reducing overweight, obesity, and chronic disease. It is best to read and use this information as a general guideline and tool to reflect on current behaviors related to nutrition and physical activity, while taking into account your individual needs. Honoring your health with nutrition is important, but if a positive relationship with food is not in place, it can be difficult to truly pursue healthy eating. If food is a source of stress or struggle, or if you are focused on nutrition for the sole purpose of weight loss, it may be a good idea to first review the section on positive eating attitudes and behaviors, or visit our webpage on eating concerns before reading through the dietary guidelines. 

What are the dietary guidelines for grains?

Make half your grains whole grains.

Grains provide carbohydrates, the primary source of fuel for the body and brain, and are usually separated into two groups:

Whole grains, which contain the entire grain kernel (bran, germ, and endosperm). Whole grains can help meet our daily needs of fiber and B-vitamins.

Examples of whole grains: Brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, rolled oats, quinoa. Whole-grain products (bread, crackers, pasta, tortillas, and cereal) should have this listed as the first ingredient on the nutrition facts label.

Refined grains, in which the bran and germ are removed, lose the fiber, iron, and many of the B-vitamins in the grain. As a result, most refined grains have been enriched which means certain B-vitamins and iron have been added back in to make them more nutritionally adequate.

Examples of refined grains: White bread, white sandwich buns and rolls, white rice, pretzels, corn tortillas, couscous.

It is suggested that 50% of daily grain intake should come from whole grains. To meet this recommendation, try whole-wheat versions of the refined grain products that you are currently eating. For example, switch out brown rice for white rice or whole-wheat breads for white breads. Rather than creating a focus on "good grains" and "bad grains," we suggest that you aim for having lots of variety in your grain choices to optimize nutrition and enjoy what you are eating. 

What are the dietary guidelines for vegetables?

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Vegetables are a terrific source of vitamins and minerals, particularly when you try to add as much color as possible to your plate. Vegetables that are red, orange and dark green are rich in anti-oxidants and other vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Beans and peas are unique foods since they are a part of the protein foods group, yet they are also considered part of the vegetable group because they provide an excellent source of dietary fiber and nutrients such as folate and potassium. The dietary guidelines recommend that about half your plate is filled with colorful vegetables.

Examples of red, orange and dark green vegetables: Squash, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tomato juice, broccoli, lettuce, kale, spinach.

Examples of starchy vegetables: Corn, green peas, green lima beans, potatoes, water chestnuts

Examples of beans and peas: Black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, soy beans, white beans.

Examples of other vegetables: Asparagus, avocado, beets, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, zucchini. 

What are the dietary guidelines for fruit?

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Fruits, like vegetables, are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are also an excellent source of carbohydrate. Any fruit (fresh, frozen, canned, dried) or 100% fruit juice can count as part of this group.

Examples of fruit include: apples, bananas, grapefruit, grapes, melon, oranges, peaches, pears, berries, 100% fruit juice, plums, raisins, prunes, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, etc. 

What are the dietary guidelines for protein?

Go lean with protein.

The body needs protein in the diet in order to grow, maintain, and repair cells. This food group is also rich in iron and other minerals. It is recommended for meat-eaters to get a variety of both animal and plant protein sources in their diet. Choose low-fat and lean meats and seafood when possible.

Examples of animal proteins: beef, poultry, pork, seafood, turkey, ham, eggs.

Examples of plant proteins: beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, soy products, hummus, nuts, seeds, peanut butter. 

What are the dietary guidelines for dairy?

Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

This food group is the most dependable source of calcium in your diet. Adequate intake of calcium during adolescence and early adulthood increases the likelihood of optimal bone density for both men and women, offering protection against osteoporosis and bone fractures.

If you have an intolerance to regular milk, you can use low-lactose or non-lactose milk products, or a calcium-fortified soy product (be sure it has added vitamin D to help you absorb the calcium). People with lactose intolerance may be able to handle small amounts of dairy foods, and may do particularly well with yogurt, since the lactose in it has already been partially broken down. Taking lactase-containing tablets (such as Lactaid) just before a meal or snack with dairy products may allow you to enjoy a slice of pizza or an ice cream cone without feeling sick afterwards. Teens and adults need approximately 3 cups of calcium-rich dairy foods per day. If you struggle to get the recommend intake, you can take a calcium supplement (with added vitamin D), as you continue to seek out sources of calcium-rich foods. Calcium supplements are available at the Health Services pharmacy.

Examples of dairy foods (and dairy substitutes): milk, cheese, yogurt, soy yogurt, greek yogurt, frozen yogurt, fortified soy milk, lactaid milk, almond milk. 

What do I need to know about oils and fats?

Oils are not a food group, but they do provide essential nutrients and are therefore included in the Dietary Guidelines for balanced eating. It is absolutely necessary to eat some fat in order to maintain energy and health. In addition to providing the longest-lasting source of dietary energy, fats are involved in the transport of vitamins, the composition of hormones, and are an important component of the brain and nerves. Here are some things to keep in mind to get the dietary fat you need while maintaining good health:

For heart health, we suggest that the majority of fat choices come from unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fat sources include canola oil, olive oil, olives, most nuts and seeds, peanut butter, and fats made with olive and canola oils (dressings, soft margarines, mayonnaise). Polyunsaturated fat sources include vegetable oils, oily fish, walnuts and sunflower seeds.

Foods higher in saturated fat (animal fat, butter, whole-milk dairy products, coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) when consumed frequently and in large amounts have been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. You can still include these foods in moderation as part of a healthy diet.

Trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fats, are usually present in foods when polyunsaturated fats or monounsaturated fats are exposed to extremely high temperatures or otherwise manipulated in order to lengthen the shelf-life of a food product. Foods that are likely to contain significant amounts of trans fats include commercially baked goods (pastries, biscuits, muffins, cakes, pie crusts, doughnuts and cookies) fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, breaded chicken nuggets and breaded fish), snack foods (popcorn, crackers), and other foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, traditional vegetable shortening or stick margarine (soft margarines typically contain lower levels of trans fats). Trans fats can have an even more negative effect on cholesterol levels than saturated fats, so it is important to consume these foods in small amounts or on an infrequent basis as part of an otherwise nutrient-dense diet.

Balancing high-fat and low-fat choices within meals and throughout the day helps keep your dietary intake of fat moderate. If you have chosen a higher-fat option at your meal, pairing it with a low-fat protein or dairy choice can be a great way to provide that balance. Each meal can contain a little bit of fat, and higher-fat versions of foods are certainly acceptable depending on your appetite. For example, some days you might choose salad with vinaigrette dressing, other days a grilled-cheese sandwich. The key is variety, and you need to have the option of choosing either (and sometimes both options!) in order to be a balanced, normal eater.

According to the American Heart Association, the total amount of fats you eat each day should be about 25-35 percent of your total daily calories. Within those limits, keep the saturated fats you eat to less than 7 percent of total daily calories and your trans fat consumption to less than 1 percent. Translating these percentages into numbers, that means if you eat 2,000 total calories a day, your daily intake should be approximately 56-78 grams total fat, less than 16 grams from saturated fats and less than 2 grams from trans fats. 

What do I need to know about salt and sodium?

Sodium and sodium-chloride (commonly known as salt) occur naturally in the foods that you eat. Some individuals may get more sodium than they need in their diet by eating large amounts of processed foods that have been canned, bottled, packaged, or frozen (check nutrition labels). Excess sodium can be associated with high blood pressure in some individuals, and is also thought to be a factor in calcium losses and the risk of osteoporosis. You can moderate your sodium intake by cooking with spices and herbs instead of salt, opting for reduced-sodium versions of sauces, condiments, soups, and packaged foods, and not using additional salt at the table. Aim for an intake of less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (approximately 1 teaspoon). A higher salt intake may be warranted if you are an athlete who loses a lot of salt from sweat in training or competition.

Foods that are good sources of potassium can counteract some of sodium's effects on blood pressure. Vegetables like sweet potatoes, beet greens, white beans, potatoes, tomato puree and paste, and soybeans and fruits like bananas, prunes, cantaloupe, honeydew, and orange juice are examples of foods to choose for potassium. 

What do I need to know about sugar?

Most people like sweet-tasting foods and tend to gravitate towards foods that are a ready source of carbohydrates, most likely because this is the only fuel source for the brain.

Natural sugars are sugars already present in unprocessed foods like fruit (fructose), dairy products including milk and yogurt (lactose) and some vegetables (sucrose). These foods that contain naturally occurring sugars are also packed full of nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are put into foods or beverages when they are processed or prepared. These foods and beverages often lack important vitamins and minerals, so choosing to fill up on them instead of nutrient-dense options can make it difficult to meet your nutrition needs appropriately. However, used moderately and as an addition to a meal (rather than a replacement), sweet foods and beverages with added sugars can fit into a healthy meal plan by providing a source of carbohydrate that is highly enjoyable.

Examples of foods with added sugar include: regular soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, cobblers, sweet rolls, pastries, donuts, and mixed fruit drinks such as fruit punch.

Sugar substitutes are an option, but they may not save that many calories, and some research suggests that the insulin response to artificial sweeteners may actually increase appetite. 

Focus on positive eating attitudes and behaviors

While the idea of stabilizing a healthy weight and striving for a nutritionally adequate diet are endorsable goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) and Myplate, some critics question the guidelines use of a "control model" (using rules to tell people what and how much to eat) to improve health. This comes at the risk of overlooking the importance of a more inclusive message focused on trusting and supporting positive eating attitudes and behaviors.

Ellyn Satter is a registered dietitian, family therapist, and an internationally recognized authority on eating attitudes and feeding behaviors. While Satter endorses the DGA goals related to managing a healthy weight and nutritionally adequate diet, in a February 2011 newsletter, she voices her concern over the methods that are suggested to achieve these goals by stating "[The Dietary Guidelines for Americans] 2010 repeats earlier ineffective and even harmful prescriptions...telling people what and how much to eat...when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers." Of great concern is the possibility that the DGA may promote a higher degree of conflict around eating, physical activity, and body image for some people. Disordered eating and compulsive exercise are serious issues for both women and men on many college campuses and for society in general. Many college-age women, in particular, have inadequate intakes of calcium, iron, and other important nutrients, often as a result of trying to limit the caloric intake of their diets.

It is important to be informed of the DGA and Myplate as informative tools, but consider placing a stronger emphasize on a personalized approach that reinforces honoring hunger and fullness, enjoyment of foods, and self-confidence where health decisions related to food and weight are concerned. For more detailed information about these concepts visit our weight concerns webpage

Health At Every Size

It is important to acknowledge the benefits of maintaining an appropriate weight, but at the same time we need to recognize the potential problematic aspects of weight control (which the 2010 Dietary Guidelines do not address) such as weight cycling from dieting.

Interestingly, a California study compared changes in weight, labwork, eating behavior, eating attitudes, and psychology (self-esteem, depression, body image) between two groups of women receiving 6 months of weekly group education. The first group received behavior-based weight loss education which included nutrition information, moderate calorie and fat restriction, keeping a food diary, and monitoring weight. The second group used a Health At Every Size (HAES ) approach which focused on body acceptance, nutrition education, decreasing restrictive eating, increasing attention to internal cues for hunger and satiety, and addressing barriers to enjoyable physical activity.

The results were striking. At the two-year follow-up point, the HAES group showed sustained and significant improvements in total cholesterol, LDL, blood pressure, moderate physical activity, restricted eating, susceptibility to hunger, body dissatisfaction, and self-esteem. The diet group did not sustain positive changes in any of these areas, in fact, self-esteem was shown to be significantly worse at the two-year follow-up point. Fifty-three per cent of the diet participants expressed feelings of failure, compared with 0% of the HAES group.

It is important to remember that weight, Body Mass Index (BMI) or body size alone does not determine the health or fitness of an individual. Rather addressing lifestyle factors (nutrition, sleep, stress, physical activity, medical conditions, etc.) in positive and rewarding ways proves to be a better predictor of long-term health.

Health At Every Size and HAES are registered trademarks of the Association for Size Diversity and Health and used with permission. 

Physical Activity

There is no doubt that being physically active throughout the day can have a strong influence on your health in a positive way. This is because of the many benefits physical activity provides the body, including:

  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease
  • Improved duration and quality of sleep
  • Improved energy levels
  • Improved mood and decreased stress
  • Improved body image
  • Improved bone density

Physical activity becomes less enjoyable when it is used for the sole purpose of weight control, weight loss, or burning calories. Feeling extreme guilt when you are less active or trying to compensate for eating a certain type or amount of food by exercising more are signs of an unhealthy relationship with exercise. These negative attitudes can quickly reduce the positive benefits physical activity is able to provide. Enjoyment is a far better predictor and motivator of consistent physical activity than worry or guilt, and it brings along more health benefits.

Focus on fun and enjoyment when you think about being active. Concentrate on the pleasure and satisfaction you get from moving your body to music, being in nature, participating in a team sport, or becoming more accomplished with an active hobby. The key is keeping activity fun and flexible! 

How can I make the Dietary Guidelines and Myplate work for me?

Even with shifts in nutrition policy, balance, moderation, and flexibility are key when it comes to a healthy perspective on food and eating, so keep the following tips in mind when interpreting the Dietary Guidelines and Myplate for yourself:

  • Nutrition policy applies to populations, so depending on your individual eating behaviors, the guidelines may or may not apply to you.
  • Trust yourself. When eating is a positive and reliable experience, people bring themselves along with respect to improving the nutritional quality of their diets.
  • Be realistic. Make gradual, small changes over time in what you eat and in your level of exercise. Small steps work better than giant leaps!
  • Be adventurous. Expand your tastes to enjoy a variety of foods.
  • Be flexible. Look at what you eat and the physical activity you do over several days. There is no need to worry about what happens at every meal.
  • Be sensible. Enjoy all foods; just don't overdo it. All things in moderation is the best approach to healthy eating.
  • Be active. Taking a walk between classes, playing a game of Frisbee, and going dancing are easy ways to get exercise.

In the end, it isn't about being perfect with eating; it's about healthy, normal, "good enough" eating. Ellyn Satter, RD, defines "normal eating" this way:

  • Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it - not just stopping because you think you should.
  • Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
  • Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
  • It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
  • Normal eating is overeating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

When reviewing the dietary guidelines, keep in mind the importance of trusting your natural hunger and fullness signals as a way to self-regulate energy balance and focus on eating a variety from all the food groups. This approach honors the body, meets nutrition needs, helps maintain an appropriate body weight and ultimately supports overall good health. 

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