Five key takeaways from the USDA’s 2020 Dietary Guidelines advisory report

bagged groceries in brown paper bags on counter July 2020

iStock / yulkapopkova

The 835-page report lays the scientific groundwork for the five years of federal nutrition advice. Here’s what you need to know.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday published a consequential nutrition report that will form the basis of the next five years of federal dietary guidance. Authored by an advisory committee made up of 20 health experts, the report is a review of the latest dietary and nutrition research, which USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will then use to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated every five years, the guidelines help determine federal nutrition policies and healthy eating recommendations for the nation.

The final weeks leading up to the report’s publication were not without controversy. In June, a number of organizations representing health care specialists called for USDA to extend the committee’s deadline to October of this year. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the country’s biggest association of nutrition professionals, cited the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the government shutdown ending in January 2019 among disruptions to the advisory committee’s work. The Nutrition Coalition, a group of nutrition and policy experts, also argued in favor of an extension to allow the committee to consider a wider range of studies and research. In numerous instances throughout the report, its authors note that “time constraints” forced them to take shortcuts in their analysis, or eschew the review of some evidence altogether.

All in all, the report makes a few notable suggestions for the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines, while maintaining a core emphasis on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat. We break down some of the most notable takeaways from the report below. USDA and HHS will publish the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the end of the year.

1. Men should cut back on booze

Previous versions of the Dietary Guidelines have recommended that men limit themselves to two drinks per day, defined as a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor. For women, one drink per day has been advised. The new report lowers the recommendation for men to one drink per day and keeps the same recommendation for women. More subtly, the report clarifies that people should not drink in hopes of improving their health, The New York Times reports, meaning total abstinence is generally better than moderate drinking. Previous versions of the guidelines—including one as recent as 2010—suggested that moderate drinking might help with cognitive function in old age. 

2. Three meals is better than two, but sometimes snacks are meals and meals are snacks.

Thinking of adopting intermittent fasting or testing a five-meal-a-day diet? There’s no scientific consensus to back up those habits just yet, though the report concedes that more research is necessary. In general, though, eating three meals per day was associated with better diet quality than two, and late-night meals and snacks tended to include more unhealthy foods. What’s also unclear is what constitutes a meal, and what constitutes a snack. Though Americans now self-report an average of more than five meals or snacks per day, “consensus on clear definitions or distinctions between a meal versus a snack remains elusive.”

3. We’re all eating too much sugar, but it’s really bad among children

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines urged Americans to limit their consumption of added sugars to 10 percent or less of their total caloric intake. Looking forward, the advisory committee is now urging Americans to reduce their added sugar intake even further, to just 6 percent. That would require us to more than halve the amount of added sweeteners we currently consume: The advisory committee found that added sugars make up on average 13 percent of our daily energy intake, largely coming from sugar in beverages, desserts, snacks, candy, and cereals—foods that the authors say we could all cut down on. 

Worryingly, the demographic group over-consuming sugar at the highest rate is children between the ages of 4 and 18, up to 79 percent of whom are exceeding the added sugar limit. A major culprit behind this, the authors note, are sweetened beverages like fruit juices and soda which can up nearly a third of their added sugar consumption. Maybe this is where mandatory added sugar labeling—which came into effect this year—can help us cut down.

4. Infants should eat peanuts, eggs, and other common allergens

Feeding peanuts, eggs, and other foods that can cause sensitivities to babies in the first year of life might lower risk of allergies in adulthood, according to the new Dietary Guidelines. Similarly, feeding children a wide variety of “adult foods” before the age of two may positively influence their tastes and habits later in life. Furthemore, infants should not have any added sugar in the first 24 months of life.

5. Sustainability is still not on the table

The report’s authors urged USDA and HHS to consider system-wide issues like environmental sustainability in the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, but stopped short of making concrete recommendations on what those should look like. This comes in response to numerous public comments calling for the committee to evaluate the social and ecological consequences of dietary recommendations. In March, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group, called for lowering our consumption of meat and dairy, as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use. The advisory committee, too, conceded in its report that healthy eating is contingent on environmentally resilient food production. Chances are, however, this note will be all but ignored in the final iteration of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines. After all, the advisory committee in 2015 made similar suggestions, and they were ultimately ignored.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.