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Ep. 49 – USDA Dietary Guidelines

Exactly what are the USDA guidelines for dietary intake? Dr. Chet Zelasko lets us know and looks into the recommendations on this episode of Straight Talk On Health

Welcome to Straight Talk On Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk On Health is recorded in conjunction with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Whether it’s research that makes the news, another miracle diet, or a new food fad, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

This all began with examining the phrase bioengineered foods. I'm actually going to get to that in the next podcast but I felt it was important for all of us to understand what the dietary recommendations are put forth by the United States Department of agriculture or USDA for short. You might ask yourself “how did you get from bioengineered foods to the USDA recommendations for diet for all Americans?” It's just the way my mind works.

Looking at the regulations for identifying bioengineered foods and nutrition labels, I ended up at the actual laws passed by Congress. I don't know how anyone can possibly understand them. You'll run into a reference that reads:

Title 7 Subtitle B Chapter I Subchapter C Part 66 Subpart A Subsection 66.3

And that will refer back to other subsections. So before I tackle that mess and bioengineered foods, let’s look at what we’re supposed to eat by the USDA, the same department that makes the rule about nutrition labels and disclosing bioengineered foods.

“Make every bite count.” You might expect that from one of the many nutritional gurus that you can find on the Internet or in the thousands and thousands of books written about the best way to eat. Fact is, that's the tagline from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (DGA). I suspect that most Americans don't really know what's contained within those guidelines. Most nutritional experts probably haven't read them either. They seem to focus on carbs and that it recommends too many of them. We’ll see. One more thing. Even though, as I record this, it's 2023, a panel of experts are already working on the next iteration of the dietary guidelines. What's new in this version compared to prior versions of the dietary guidelines?

The most important change I see is an emphasis on nutrition under the age of one and then at various life stages. The main focus, whatever the age group is to focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits. Two concepts there that we shouldn’t miss. Food first and don’t overeat for your health and activity pattern.

Let’s take a closer look. Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods and beverages—specifically, nutrient-dense foods and beverages. Why? Nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components. In addition, these foods and beverages should have no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. A healthy dietary pattern consists of the same nutrient composition in the foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits.

What are the core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern:

• 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

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

Do these sound abnormal to you? Is there a “Make sure you eat every cookie, candy, pie, and pasta and in mass quantities every day” anywhere to be found? No. Is this responsible to get the nutrients you need? Yes. The DGA also recommend foods that a specific to cultures and ethnic groups and a variety of cooking styles. Compare that with the keto recommendations of severely restricting carbohydrates or even veganism restricting animal products of any types or the Paleo restricting every grain for some unverifiable theory about what people ate in the Paleolithic era. Which sounds more strange to you now?


At every life stage, meeting food group recommendations—even with nutrient-dense choices—requires most of a person’s daily calorie needs and sodium limits. A healthy dietary pattern doesn’t have much room for extra added sugars, saturated fat, or sodium—or for alcoholic beverages. But there is room for small amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, or sodium on occasion. Here are some recommended limitation.

-Added sugars should be less than 5% of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2.

-Saturated fat—Less than 10% of calories per day starting at age 2.

-Sodium—Less than 2,300 milligrams per day—and even less for children younger than age 14.

-Alcoholic beverages—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. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.

Is there a lot to criticize about the DGA? Not really. That doesn’t stop a whole lot of gurus from doing so. Most people who do, usually pitching another diet, are actually criticizing the Westernized diet and the food selections people make to follow those guidelines. The DGA does not say only eat starches and grains to overdo it on carbohydrates. Nowhere does it say that we should eat UPF to fulfill the carbohydrate recommendations. I like Cheetos and Pringles about as much as the next person. But those are not something to eat on a regular basis. As the occasional snack in small amounts, sure. But as a regular part of the diet? No. The guidelines can recommend, and have for over 50 years but they can't control manufacturers to the extent that they only produce foods that fit within the DGA. That task is laid upon your shoulders for you and possibly for your family.

Now that you know what the guidelines actually say, maybe you can make better decisions about what you want to put into your body. Remember that tagline at the beginning of the show? Make every bite count. Your body, your choice.

Now that we know what the USDA recommends to eat, what are the rules related to bioengineered foods. I keep using that expression but what am I really talking about. Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO for short. You won’t be seeing that on your labels. Are the GMO foods gone? You’ll find out next time. Hint - no they’re not and in fact, they may be hidden from detection. Thank you for listening but that’s it for this show. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.

Reference: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 Executive Summary

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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