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Understanding Dietary Guidelines and Healthy Eating

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The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans provide a valuable framework for healthy eating patterns. Recognizing that a healthy diet is not one-size-fits-all, these guidelines offer three distinct eating patterns to accommodate various dietary preferences and lifestyles. In this article, we will explore each of these patterns in detail, along with the principles that define a healthy eating pattern.

The Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern

The Healthy U.S.-style eating pattern serves as the baseline for healthy eating. This pattern emphasizes:

  • A variety of vegetables from all subgroups, including dark green, red, and orange; legumes (beans, lentils, and peas); and starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash).
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits, as opposed to fruit juices or fruit-based snacks.
  • Grains, with at least half being whole grains.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, or fortified soy beverages.
  • A variety of protein sources, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, soy foods (edamame, tofu, tempeh, and soy beverages), nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, lentils, and peas).
  • Oils rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

The Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern

While there is no single Mediterranean diet, as it varies from country to country, numerous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of Mediterranean-style eating patterns. Common features of this pattern include:

  • An abundance of vegetables and fruits.
  • Whole grains.
  • Legumes.
  • Fish.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Olive oil as the primary source of fat.

Compared to the Healthy U.S.-style eating pattern, the Mediterranean-style pattern includes more fruits and seafood and less dairy, resulting in slightly lower calcium and vitamin D levels.

The Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern

The Healthy Vegetarian eating pattern is characterized by:

  • An increased intake of legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), soy products, nuts, seeds, and whole grains compared to the Healthy U.S.-style eating pattern.
  • Exclusion of meats, poultry, and seafood.
  • Similar amounts of all other food groups as the Healthy U.S.-style eating pattern.

This pattern is slightly higher in calcium and dietary fiber but lower in vitamin D, as it relies more heavily on foods like beans and tofu for protein.

The Importance of Vegetables and Fruits

Regardless of which eating pattern you follow, a significant emphasis should be placed on consuming vegetables and fruits. While many people may be familiar with the "five a day" recommendation, the USDA now advises aiming for seven to 10 daily servings, depending on age and sex. The table below provides a detailed breakdown of these updated guidelines:

Table 1: Vegetables and fruits: How much is enough?

If you think eating “five a day” of fruits and vegetables is enough, think again. The USDA now recommends 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day — roughly four to six half-cup servings of vegetables alone — in addition to 1½ to 2 cups of fruit (roughly three to four half-cup servings). That’s seven to 10 servings of produce a day. That’s because fruit and vegetable consumption is linked with so many benefits, including weight control and lower risk of chronic diseases.

19–302½ cups2 cups
31–502½ cups1½ cups
51+2 cups1½ cups
19–303 cups2 cups
31–503 cups2 cups
51+2½ cups2 cups
William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Medically Evaluated by:
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