How to Make the Dietary Guidelines Work for You

The release of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) was met by the media with a yawn. In my world the DGAs are a big deal because they represent a comprehensive review of the science on food and nutrition. And I’m not kidding when I say comprehensive; the Scientific Report is 835 pages!

The report gets translated into guidelines, a 164-page report and then released to the public. (Click here for the guidelines.) If that is too much to sift through, here is a link to the 4-page version of the highlights.

Americans need nutrition guidance more than ever, but just like politics, we are in our tribes and unwilling to see the big picture. From Keto to Carnivore, diet tribes swear their eating plan is the best, the healthiest, and are unbending to the science. The science on food and nutrition is ever changing to be sure, but the bulk of the evidence is clear: eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein from lean meat or meat alternatives, such as beans, nuts, and soy, low-fat dairy, and healthy fats and oils is the basis for good health.

What we eat has a profound impact on health and here are just a few statistics that could be impacted by changing our dietary habits:

About 74% of adults are overweight or have obesity.

Adults ages 40 to 59 have the highest rate of obesity (43%) of any age group with adults

60 years and older having a 41% rate of obesity.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death.

About 45% of adults have hypertension.

Almost 35% of American adults have prediabetes, and people 65 years and older have

the highest rate (48%) compared to other age groups.

More women (17%) than men (5%) have osteoporosis.

20% of older adults have reduced muscle strength.

But most of us would get a failing grade for our eating habits. The Healthy Eating Index is a scoring system used to evaluate diet quality. Americans score 59 out of a possible 100 and that translates to an F; older adults do slightly better with a 66, but that is still a D in this professor’s grade book. We can improve our scores because it is never too early or never too late to start eating for good health.

The 2020 DGA recognize that food is more than the nutrients it contains. A sustainable diet is one that includes foods we like, honors our cultural traditions, and is affordable. That is why the DGA emphasize dietary patterns over single nutrients. Whether you follow a vegetarian or Mediterranean plan, keep in mind that:

 “Nutrients are not consumed in isolation, foods and beverages are not consumed separately either. Rather they are consumed in various combinations over time—a dietary pattern. The evolving evidence showed that components of a dietary pattern could have interactive, synergistic, and potentially cumulative relationships, such that they could predict overall health status and disease risk more fully than could individual foods or nutrients.” (Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.)

For the first time, the DGA takes a life course approach, offering guidelines based on specific needs at different stages of life. For older adults (defined in this report as those of us over 60 years), there are a few special things worth calling attention to:

Photo credit USDA ARS

Vary your protein source. We’ve talked to expert about the importance of protein but the DGA emphasize not putting all of your eggs into the protein basket. As we move into older ages, both protein quantity and quality are increasing important. About half of women and a third of men over the age of 71 don’t get enough protein. While we are pretty good at eating enough meat, poultry, and eggs, we are woefully short on other protein sources: seafood, dairy, soy, beans, peas, and lentils should all make more frequent appearances on our plates. Foods from these groups also deliver nutrients needed as we age: calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, fiber, and vitamin B12.

Speaking of vitamin B12, that is another nutrient of concern. Absorption of the natural or food-bound form of B12 is less efficient as we age, so the synthetic form is a better absorbed. (Here is one instance where “natural” is not as good as the man-made form.) You will find the synthetic form of B12 added to foods, such as fortified breakfast cereals.

Think about your drink. Many of us do not drink enough fluids to stay hydrated. As we age, our thirst sensation declines, and we may limit fluids to avoid frequent trips to the bathroom. Adults over the age of 60 drink about 2 fewer cups of water per day than younger adults. The solution? Drink more water and don’t overlook water the contained in foods: fresh or canned fruits and veggies, soup, coffee, and tea all contribute to hydration. Yes, alcohol is also a fluid, but limiting alcohol intake is wise at any age. The effects of alcohol can be felt more quickly in older adults, can interact with many prescription and over-the-counter medications, and increase risk of accidents and injuries.

I encourage you to explore this website to take a quiz on your eating habits, find tip sheets, videos, and infographics, and some tasty recipes to help you put it all together.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Her book, Food & Fitness After 50 helps us to eat well, move well, and be well. Visit her website to learn more healthy aging.