New Dietary Guidelines Omit Recommended Cuts to Sugar, Alcohol Intake

Jake Remaly

December 29, 2020

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released new dietary guidelines today that for the first time include recommended dietary patterns for infants and toddlers.

Although the new guidelines were informed by an advisory committee's scientific report, officials omitted certain recommendations that would have reduced allowances for added sugars and alcohol intake.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans "carried forward the committee's emphasis on limiting these dietary components, but did not include changes to quantitative recommendations, as there was not a preponderance of evidence in the material the committee reviewed to support specific changes, as required by law," the agencies said in a news release.

The guidelines encourage Americans to "Make Every Bite Count" through four overarching suggestions: 

  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage

  • Customize nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect preferences, cultural traditions, and budgets

  • Focus on meeting dietary needs from five food groups — vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and fortified soy alternatives, and proteins — and stay within calorie limits.

  • Limit foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

The guidance "can help all Americans lead healthier lives by making every bite count," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.

Proposed Cutoffs Rejected

The guidelines omit a recommendation from the advisory committee's scientific report to reduce intake of added sugars from less than 10% of calories to less than 6% of calories.

It also omits a recommendation that men and women who drink alcohol limit themselves to one drink per day. It maintains guidance from the 2015-2020 edition that allows two drinks per day for men.

The agencies published a document explaining why they omitted the advisory committee's conclusions.

The American Heart Association (AHA) in July had praised the suggestion to reduce added sugars. The proposed change would have helped "steer the public toward a more heart-healthy path in their daily diets," Mitchell S.V. Elkind, MD, president of the AHA, said at the time. The association would "strongly oppose any efforts to weaken these recommendations," he added.

In its response to the new guidelines, Elkind praised the emphasis on a healthy diet "at every life stage" but called out a missed opportunity.

"We are disappointed that USDA and HHS did not accept all of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's science-based recommendations in the final guidelines for 2020, including the recommendation to lower added sugars consumption to less than 6% of calories," he said in a prepared statement.

Guidance for Infants and Toddlers

The guidelines advise that for about the first 6 months of life, infants should exclusively receive breast milk. Infants should continue to receive breast milk through at least the first year of life, and longer if desired. Infants should be fed iron-fortified infant formula during the first year of life when breast milk is unavailable, and infants should receive supplemental vitamin D soon after birth, the guidelines advise. 

At about 6 months, infants should be introduced to a variety of nutrient-dense complementary foods, including potentially allergenic foods. Infants should eat foods that are rich in iron and zinc, particularly if they are fed breast milk. 

The guidelines also include dietary and caloric advice for pregnant and lactating women with daily or weekly amounts of food from different groups and subgroups.

Elkind highlighted the significance of these additions.

"We are pleased that for the first time, the guidelines provide recommendations for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as infants and toddlers, underscoring the importance of maternal health and proper nutrition across the lifespan," he said.

For All Ages

From 12 months through older adulthood, people should follow a healthy dietary pattern to meet nutrient needs, help achieve a healthy body weight, and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

According to the guidelines, core elements of a healthy diet 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 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

The guidelines spell out limits to added sugars, sodium, saturated fat, and alcohol. The recommendation to limit added sugars to less than 10% of calories per day starts at age 2 years. Before age 2, foods and beverages with added sugars should be avoided.

Saturated fat should be limited to less than 10% of calories per day starting at age 2. And sodium intake should be limited to 2300 mg/day for those age 14 and older, but just 1200 mg/day for toddlers, 1500 mg/day for kids aged 4-8, and 1800 mg/day for children 9-13.

"Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed," the agencies said. "Drinking less is better for health than drinking more. There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant."

An appendix includes estimated calorie needs based on a person's age, sex, height, weight, and level of physical activity. A need to lose, maintain, or gain weight are among the factors that influence how many calories should be consumed, the guidelines note.

The guidelines are designed for use by healthcare professionals and policymakers. The USDA has launched a new MyPlate website to help consumers incorporate the dietary guidance.

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