You’ve heard it before: The best diet is the one you’ll stick with the longest.
That’s also a key takeaway from the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a set of nutrition recommendations published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
A panel of scientists meets every five years to issue these evidence-based guidelines, which provide a framework for following a healthy diet.
So what’s different about the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans?
The newest guidelines emphasize that everyone can benefit from healthy dietary patterns, whether or not you’re trying to lose weight.
The focus is on dietary patterns rather than individual foods or food groups, and the guidelines identify healthy patterns for every stage of life.
Here are the four overarching guidelines you need to know from the newest edition.
1. A healthy diet matters at every stage of life
On some level, we’ve always understood that our nutritional needs change and evolve throughout different stages of life.
For example, a teenager in a growth spurt will likely have different dietary needs than an adult looking to lose weight.
But historically, the dietary guidelines have provided recommendations based on what’s best for all Americans as a whole.
This edition, however, marks the first time the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will include recommendations for each stage of life.
That includes certain groups who weren’t addressed in previous guidelines, such as pregnant and lactating women and children under two years old, says Trinh Le, M.P.H., R.D.N. at FearlessFoodRD.
The new guidelines can also help establish healthy eating habits for children of all ages.
2. Food choices can be tailored to your tastes, culture, and budget
The new set of guidelines “emphasizes the need to customize diets,” Le says. “It’s good that they acknowledge there is no one-size-fits-all diet.”
Within the larger umbrella of healthy foods, you have a lot of choices — and the new guidelines encourage you to take advantage of that.
There’s no need to eat a plate of broccoli every day if you hate it or buy expensive ingredients if you’re on a budget.
The new dietary guidelines highlight the range of options available so you can create a customized eating plan that fits your food preferences and your lifestyle.
3. Focus on nutrient-dense foods, and keep your calories in check
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage you to “make every bite count.”
This reflects a shift in mentality, not a change in food recommendations, Le explains: “The nutrient-first concept is another way to think about food, but the foods that are considered healthy for us haven’t changed.”
In other words, if your goal is to make every bite count, you’ll naturally seek out nutrient-dense foods — foods that are high in vitamins and minerals per serving.
And that means you’ll end up choosing many foods that have been recommended in previous editions.
But this mentality shift is important.
“You’re focusing on what you can eat rather than what you can’t,” Le says — and that can make healthy eating easier for many people.
Also, keep in mind that some nutrient-dense foods may also be calorie-dense — like avocados, nut butters, and whole grains.
Even when choosing nutrient-dense foods, be sure to keep an eye on portions to avoid racking up more calories than you need.
4. Limit added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, and alcohol
You may have heard of the 80/20 rule: Eat healthy foods 80 percent of the time, and give yourself some dietary flexibility the other 20 percent of the time.
The new dietary guidelines suggest a slightly stricter approach.
To support your body and give it the nutrients it needs each day, aim for 85 percent of your calories to come from nutrient-dense foods.
To help you hit that goal, you’ll need to limit your intake of certain foods — and you probably won’t find any surprises on the list.
“The science hasn’t changed much around added sugar and saturated fat — too much will raise your risk for diet-related illnesses,” Le says.
But the remaining 15 percent of your calories can be used to mindfully enjoy some of these foods.
“If you’re eating healthy most of the time, there’s no reason you can’t treat yourself,” Le says. “Doing so can make it easier to stick with your healthy eating habit.”
Calculating exact percentages may require more math than you’re willing to do before digging into lunch, so Le advises taking baby steps by focusing on food swaps.
“The easy way is to slowly replace soda, candy, or chips with a healthier choice like water, fruit, or vegetables,” she says.