The newest edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2020-2025, released at the end of 2020, translates the latest research on diet and health into guidance that helps people choose foods and beverages. This guidance helps people meet their nutrient needs so the body can function at its best, escape the up and down weight cycle by achieving a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of diet-related chronic diseases like heart disease.
The Guidelines focus on holistic dietary patterns – what you eat and drink as a whole – instead of viewing foods, beverages and nutrients in isolation. A healthy dietary pattern may look different at different stages of your life. Think about the chicken nuggets and canned green beans you ate as a child that you may now be serving to your own young children. We can’t and shouldn’t be expected to eat the same way all the time or all our lives. The goal is to make collective healthy choices over time.
The core elements of a healthy dietary pattern remain unchanged. It’s recommended to consume plentiful amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein foods, low-fat dairy products and healthy oils and fats.
The Guidelines recommend limiting consumption of saturated fat, sugar, sodium and alcohol. Life is not all work and no play; just stick to consuming these minimally and cautiously. For example, it’s fine to have fast food every now and then, but try not to make this a daily occurrence. When it comes to alcohol, take your individual risk level into account, along with medications you take or health conditions you have when making the choice to drink or abstain.
Putting the Dietary Guidelines into Practice
- Begin with personal preferences. Ask yourself two questions: “What do I enjoy eating?” and “How can I make it just a little bit healthier? Take pizza for example – rather than ordering out, make it yourself. It doesn’t have to be a huge made-from-scratch undertaking. Buy pre-made dough (bonus points for whole wheat!), canned sauce, shredded cheese (aim for low-fat), pick one meat topping and take the opportunity to throw on veggies like mushrooms. Add flavor with fresh herbs like basil and spices such as red pepper flakes.
- Incorporate cultural traditions. We all come from different places and have different backgrounds. You can honor these traditions in a healthy way. That may mean altering the ingredients, cooking method or eating a smaller portion. Food is as much about getting nutrients as it is about the social aspect of spending time with loved ones.
- Choose a variety of options from each food group. Vary the foods you eat to get different nutrients and keep your taste buds invigorated. As versatile and delicious as potatoes or green beans are, they could get dull after a while. Aim to eat a variety of starchy vegetables such as corn, squash and broccoli along with a mixture of whole grain products like bread, rice or something more adventurous, such as couscous.
As you examine your dietary patterns, you may need some additional help. Contact a registered dietitian for a plan that is tailored to your needs and preferences. Online sessions with a registered dietitian or other nutrition professional may be a covered benefit from your health and welfare fund. Contact your health and welfare fund’s office to find out.
Establishing a healthy dietary pattern may mean subtle tweaks, substitutions and adjustments. For others, it may require larger changes and getting the whole household involved. No matter where you are on your path to healthy eating and reducing your risk for diet-related chronic diseases, understand that it is your own individual journey.
Don’t get down if you struggle to meal plan or find you need more food than before to stay full. Use your brain and stomach to listen to your body and fuel it with the proper nutrients and enough food to sustain you.
For more information about nutrition and healthy eating, check out the Principles of Good Nutrition toolbox talk and the Nutrition & Fitness for Laborers series, available for order from the Fund’s Publications catalog.
[Emily Smith is the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Manager.]