Dietary Guidelines

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the foundation of national nutrition policy for the United States. They are designed to help Americans make food choices that promote health and reduce the risk of disease. The guidelines are published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The first set of guidelines was published as Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980. Since then, an advisory committee has been appointed every five years to review and revise the guidelines based on the latest research in nutrition and health.

Early Dietary Advice in the United States

The first half of the twentieth century was a period of enormous growth in nutrition knowledge. The primary goal of nutrition advice at this time was to help people select foods to meet their energy ( calorie ) needs and prevent nutritional deficiencies . During the Great Depression of the 1930s, food was rationed and people had little money to buy food. They needed to know how to select an adequate diet with few resources, and the USDA produced a set of meal plans that were affordable for families of various incomes. To this day, a food guide for low-income families—the Thrifty Food Plan—is issued regularly by the USDA and used to determine food stamp allotments. In addition to meal plans, the USDA developed food guides—tools to help people select healthful diets. Over the years the food guides changed, based on the current information available.

Food Guides versus Dietary Guidelines

Food guides are practical tools that people can use to select a healthful diet. Food guide recommendations, such as how many servings of grains to eat, are based on dietary guidelines that are overall recommendations for healthful diets. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans include the recommendation that Americans "choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains." To help people reach this goal, the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid is built on a base of grain foods and recommends six to eleven servings daily with several servings from whole grains. Thus, the Food Guide Pyramid supports the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines.

Evolution of the Dietary Guidelines

During the 1970s, scientists began identifying links between people's usual eating habits and their risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer . They realized that a healthful diet was important not only to prevent nutrient deficiencies, but because it might play a role in decreasing the risk for chronic diseases. Since heart disease and cancer were, and still are, major causes of death and disability in the United States, there was a need to help Americans select health-promoting diets.

The first major step in federal dietary guidance was the 1977 publication of Dietary Goals for the United States by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which recommended an increased intake of carbohydrates and a reduced intake of fat , saturated fat , cholesterol, salt, and sugar. There was heated debate among nutrition scientists when the Dietary Goals were published. Some nutritionists believed that not enough was known about effects of diet and health to make suggestions as specific as those given.

In 1980, the first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released by the USDA and HHS. The seven guidelines were: (1) Eat a variety of foods; (2) Maintain ideal weight; (3) Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol; (4) Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber ; (5) Avoid too much sugar; (6) Avoid too much sodium; and (7) If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. The second edition, released in 1985, made a few changes, but kept most of the guidelines intact. Two exceptions were the weight guideline, which was changed to "Maintain desirable weight" and the last guideline, in which "alcohol" was changed to "alcoholic beverages."

Following publication of the second edition of the Dietary Guidelines, two influential reports concerning diet and health were issued. The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health was published in 1988, and the National Research Council's report Diet and Health—Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk was published in 1989. These two reports supported the goal of the Dietary Guidelines to promote eating habits that can help people stay healthy. In 1990, the third edition of the guidelines took a more positive tone than previous editions, using phrases such as "Choose a diet..." or "Use ... only in moderation," rather than "Avoid too much..." This was seen as a positive step by many nutrition educators.

The fourth edition was the first to include the Food Guide Pyramid, which had been introduced in 1992. It also was the first edition to address vegetarian diets and the recently introduced "Nutrition Facts" panel for food labels. The fifth edition, issued in 2000, expanded the number of guidelines to ten and organized them into three messages: "Aim for Fitness, Build a Healthy Base, and Choose Sensibly" (ABC).

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Aim for Fitness

  • Aim for a healthy weight
  • Be physically active each day

Build a Healthy Base

  • Let the Pyramid guide your food choices
  • Choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains
  • Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily
  • Keep food safe to eat

Choose Sensibly

  • Choose a diet that is low in fat and cholesterol and moderate in fat
  • Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugar
  • Choose and prepare foods with less salt
  • If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have evolved since they were first published in 1980. Their recommendations represent the latest research in diet and health promotion, and, as new research emerges, the guidelines will continue to change to reflect new insights into diet and health. People can take steps toward healthier lifestyles by following the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines and using tools like the Food Guide Pyramid to guide their food choices.

SEE ALSO Dietary Trends, American ; Food Guide Pyramid .

Linda Benjamin Bobroff


Cronin, Frances J., and Shaw, Anne M. (1988). "Summary of Dietary Recommendations for Healthy Americans." Nutrition Today 23:26–34.

National Research Council (1989). Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1980). Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Home and Garden Bulletin 232.) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2000). Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 5th ed. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service (1988). The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. (DHHS [PHS] Publication No. 88-50210.) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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