A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Dietary guidelines: Emphasizing balance for a healthy life

Healthy living is not about what you eat today, last week or last month. It’s what you’ve consumed your whole life that impacts your overall health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides a resource for food recommendations to promote health, help prevent chronic diseases and meet your nutritional needs.

child eating food within dietary guidelines for a healthy life

New federal nutrition guidelines can help you improve your diet and your health.

The current version of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services, highlights guidance for each stage of life, including:

  • Infants and toddlers
  • Children and adolescents
  • Adults
  • Older adults

Issued every five years since 1980, the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 mandates this publication. Previous reports build these guidelines to promote health and prevent chronic disease.

“It’s truly remarkable how many choices we make daily, monthly and annually regarding what we consume,” said Lacie Barker, clinical dietitian with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Some choices are second nature to us; we may not even realize them. But it’s important to understand that those choices impact our lives, the years to come. Resources like the guidelines provide research that can positively affect our choices.”

Never too early or too late to eat healthfully

The No. 1 step for the Dietary Guidelines is about eating healthy at every stage of life. For the first 6 months, infants should receive exclusively breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formula. Additionally, infants should supplement vitamin D beginning soon after birth.

At about six months, you can introduce nutrient-dense foods, and continue that healthy eating plan throughout your life.

“Parents, caregivers, family units have a large influence of infants and children’s nutritional habits,” Barker said. “Group mealtimes, food introductions, meal prep involvement are just a few areas that may influence young individual outlook on nutrition and overall health. Being intentional about your own nutrition and in turn, intentional about the next generation should be a priority.”

Recommendations for other life stages include the following:

  • Because 41% of children ages 2-18 are overweight or obese, guidelines emphasize eating to support normal growth and development while reduce excessive weight gain. You can help support this guidance with physical activity.
  • For adults ages 19-59, doctors encourage healthy eating and physical activity. Aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity weekly, plus muscle-building activity.
  • For pregnant and lactating women, the report offers guidance on changing calorie needs and weight management.
  • Adults 60 and older have lower caloric needs but similar or higher nutrient needs.

Eat food groups within calorie limits

A healthy diet consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits.

The core elements that make up a healthy eating plan include:

  • Vegetables of all types – dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts 

“Looking at the core elements recommended, how does it compare to your current diet? Where can you make changes to enhance the rest of your life? The changes should be sustainable and obtainable. What support do you have already, or will you need for these changes to be made? These are important questions to ask,” Barker said.

Limit sugars, saturated fats, sodium, alcohol

As mentioned, the dietary guidelines recommend that most of a person’s daily calories come from nutrient-dense choices, with little room left for extra added sugars, saturated fat, sodium or alcoholic beverages. Recommended limits are:

  • Less than 10% of calories from added sugars, starting at age 2; avoid added sugars before age 2.
  • Less than 10% of calories daily from saturated fat, starting at age 2.
  • Less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day; less for children younger than age 14.
  • No more than two alcoholic drinks a day or less for men, and one for women. 

“Be mindful of what foods and beverages you bring into your home; you may be more likely to consume things are at an easy reach,” Barker said. “Fill your spaces (home, cars, weekend cooler, etc.) with food and beverages that will fuel your body. Similarly, choose wisely where you purchase food, not only what sections of the store you shop in, but what restaurants you dine in.”

Additional resources for healthy living

The dietary guidelines also provide the nutritional foundation for federal nutrition programs, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or food banks, but aren’t meant to be considered clinical guidelines for disease treatment.

Barker explains that governmental programs are meant to be an aid when financial factors may be a barrier to consuming healthful foods. “I personally have used and been blessed by these programs,” she said.

“Again, it is remarkable how many choices we make regarding our nutrition and overall health,” Barker said. “I work within an inpatient setting and often see firsthand the chronic conditions that are prevalent within our population. Your body will be thanking you for intentionally choosing healthful decisions, making each bite count.”

If you want more help with your nutrition plan, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System nutritionist or dietitian. Want more helpful info for your diet plan? Click on the USDA’s MyPlate website.

For more about dietary guidelines, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System provider.

Learn more about Nutrition Services Find a nutritionist

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