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History of the Dietary Guidelines

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The Federal government has provided dietary advice for the public for more than 100 years through bulletins, posters, brochures, books, and—more recently—websites and social media. Dietary guidance has generally included advice about what to eat and drink for better health, but the specific messaging has changed throughout the years to reflect advances in nutrition science and the role of specific foods and nutrients on health. 

The earliest focus of dietary guidance was on food groups in a healthy diet, food safety, food storage, and ensuring that people get enough minerals and vitamins to prevent certain diseases that occur when a vitamin or mineral is lacking in the diet. As nutrition science evolved, there was greater recognition of how the diet can play a role in disease prevention and health promotion. In 1980, the first publication of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released. Since then, the Dietary Guidelines have become the cornerstone of Federal food and nutrition guidance. 

Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs

A turning point for nutrition guidance in the U.S. began in the 1970s with the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. This Committee came into existence as a bridge between interests in the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Labor and Public Welfare Committee. In its early years, the Senate Committee focused on programs designed to eliminate hunger, but more evidence linking diet to the “Nation’s killer diseases” was building and allowed the Senate Committee to expand its focus and investigate how nutrition related to the overall health of Americans. The Senate Committee indicated that:

  • Healthy diets could play an important role in promoting health, increasing productivity, and reducing health care costs.
  • The American diet has changed within the last 50 years, and people need guidance to improve their health through better nutrition.
  • The government has a role to provide nutrition guidance to Americans and encourage the advancement of nutrition research and industry food reformulation.

In 1977, after years of discussion, scientific review, and debate, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, led by Senator George McGovern, released Dietary Goals for the United States. The Dietary Goals recommended:

  • To avoid overweight, consume only as much energy as is expended; if overweight, decrease energy intake and increase energy expenditure.
  • Increase the consumption of complex carbohydrates and “naturally occurring” sugars from about 28 percent of intake to about 48 percent of energy intake.
  • Reduce the consumption of refined and processed sugars by about 45 percent to account for about 10 percent of total energy intake.
  • Reduce overall fat consumption from approximately 40 percent to about 30 percent of energy intake.
  • Reduce saturated fat consumption to account for about 10 percent of total energy intake; and balance that with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which should account for about 10 percent of energy intake each.
  • Reduce cholesterol consumption to about 300 milligrams a day.
  • Limit the intake of sodium by reducing the intake of salt to about 5 grams a day.

Changes in food selection and preparation to help individuals with achieving the Dietary Goals were also suggested.

Following the release of the Dietary Goals, some groups and individuals expressed doubt that the science available at the time supported the specificity of the recommendations. To support the credibility of the science used by the Senate Committee, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) (then called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) selected scientists from the two Departments and obtained additional expertise from the scientific community throughout the country to address the public’s need for authoritative and consistent guidance on diet and health.

USDA and HHS Collaborate to develop the Dietary Guidelines

In February 1980, USDA and HHS collaboratively issued Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which described seven principles for a healthful diet to help healthy people in making daily food choices. This edition was based, in part, on the 1979 Surgeon General’s Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the findings from a task force convened by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, which reviewed the evidence relating six dietary factors to the Nation’s health. The focus of the 1980 Dietary Guidelines was to offer ideas for incorporating a variety of foods in the diet to provide essential nutrients while maintaining recommended body weight.

It also provided guidance on limiting dietary components such as sugar, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, which were beginning to be seen as risk factors in certain chronic diseases. Both the Dietary Goals and the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans were different from previous dietary guidance in that they reflected evolving scientific evidence and changed the historical focus on nutrient adequacy to also identify the impacts of diet on chronic disease. These guidance documents discussed the concepts of moderation, including alcohol consumption, as well as nutrient adequacy.

Similar to the Dietary Goals, the 1980 Dietary Guidelines was met with controversy from some groups and individuals. This led to the use of an external Advisory Committee.

Utilizing a Federal Advisory Committee to Review the Science

After the release of the 1980 Dietary Guidelines, Congress directed the USDA and HHS to convene a Federal advisory committee to seek outside scientific expert advice prior to the Departments developing the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines. Thus, a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was established, composed of scientific experts entirely outside the Federal sector, and the advisory committee’s Scientific Report helped to inform the development of the 1985 Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Departments made relatively few changes from the 1980 edition, but this second edition was issued with much less debate. The 1985 Dietary Guidelines were used as the framework for consumer nutrition education messages. They also were used as a guide for healthy diets by scientific, consumer, and industry groups.

In 1989, USDA and HHS established a second scientific advisory committee to review the 1985 Dietary Guidelines and make recommendations for the next revision. The guidance of earlier Dietary Guidelines was reaffirmed. The 1990 Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans promoted enjoyable and healthful eating through variety and moderation, rather than dietary restriction.

USDA and HHS have continued to charter a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for each subsequent revision cycle. Each Advisory Committee is tasked with reviewing the science on nutrition and health, receiving and reviewing public comments, and preparing scientific reports to advise the Federal Government. These scientific reports informed USDA and HHS as the Departments developed the 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015-2020, and 2020-2025 editions of the Dietary Guidelines.

Evolution of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Process and Products

This chart shows how Dietary Guidelines development, products, and audience have changed from 1980 to present.

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The National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act

The 1980, 1985, and 1990 editions of the Dietary Guidelines were issued voluntarily by the two Departments. With the passage of the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, the 1995 edition of Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans became the first Dietary Guidelines Congressionally mandated by statute. This Act directs the Secretaries of USDA and HHS to jointly issue at least every five years a report entitled ‘Dietary Guidelines for Americans.’

Evolving Focus: From Nutrients to Dietary Patterns

Since 1980, the Dietary Guidelines have been notably consistent on what components make up a healthful diet, but they also have evolved in some significant ways to reflect updates to the science.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines relied on the body of science looking at the relationships between individual nutrients, foods, and food groups and health outcomes. Although this science base continues to be substantial, science has progressed. There is now a body of science looking at the relationship between overall dietary patterns and various health outcomes.

Just as nutrients are not consumed in isolation, foods and beverages are not consumed separately either. Rather, these are consumed in various combinations over time—an eating or dietary pattern. The current science base shows that components of an dietary pattern can have interactive, synergistic, and potentially cumulative relationships, such that the dietary pattern may be more predictive of overall health status and disease risk than individual foods or nutrients. Thus, dietary patterns, and their food and nutrient components, are at the core of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. This edition of the Dietary Guidelines also takes a lifespan approach focusing on what to eat and drink at different life stages, and confirms the core elements of a healthy eating pattern.

Advancement in Methods to Review the Science

Providing the public with science-based dietary guidance is core to the Dietary Guidelines. The nutrition science that informs revisions to each edition of the Dietary Guidelines is documented in the Advisory Committee’s Scientific Report. With the growing emphasis on data quality in developing clinical and public health recommendations, the 2005 Advisory Committee made advancements by using a more systematic approach for reviewing the body of science than previous advisory committees. This systematic review of the evidence was further realized for the 2010 Advisory Committee with USDA’s creation of the Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review (NESR) (formerly known as the Nutrition Evidence Library).

The NESR uses a state-of-the-art approach to search, evaluate, and synthesize the body of food and nutrition-related science. This rigorous, protocol-driven approach is designed to minimize bias, increase transparency, and ensure relevant, timely, and high-quality systematic reviews to inform Federal nutrition-related policies, programs, and recommendations. The NESR was also used to support the completion of original systematic reviews for the 2015 and 2020 Advisory Committees. 

Another approach used is food pattern modeling. The 2005 Advisory Committee was the first to introduce this approach to help the Committee describe the types and amounts of foods to eat that can provide a nutritionally adequate diet. This approach was also used and expanded by the 2010 and 2015 Advisory Committees and included modeling of multiple types of diets informed by the science. The 2020 Advisory Committee continued the use of food pattern modeling, carrying forward these types of eating patterns and exploring eating patterns for toddlers for the first time.

A third approach used is data analysis. This is used to help us understand the current dietary intakes and health status of Americans. These data help to ensure that the Dietary Guidelines are practical, relevant, and achievable. Since 1995, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees have used data analysis to support recommendations for changes to the Dietary Guidelines.

Together, these three complementary approaches provide a robust evidence base for the development of dietary guidance. With each edition of the Dietary Guidelines, USDA and HHS are committed to reviewing these and other methods to ensure that the best dietary advice is available to promote health and help prevent disease for all Americans. For example, at the time that the NESR was created by USDA, it was among the first to apply systematic reviews to the field of nutrition. Since that time, systematic reviews in the nutrition field have become a common best practice.

Addressing Public Health Needs

From the Dietary Goals to the current Dietary Guidelines, the goals and recommendations have been a way to address public health concerns related to the role of the diet in health promotion and disease prevention. Earlier editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused specifically on healthy Americans ages 2 years and older. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 takes a lifespan approach, highlighting the importance of dietary patterns at every life stage from infancy through older adulthood, and provides recommendations specific to each life stage and considering healthy dietary pattern characteristics that can be carried forward into the next stage of life. Recent editions of the Dietary Guidelines also recognize that diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer are increasingly prevalent among Americans and pose a major public health problem. As a result the Dietary Guidelines also focus on those who are at increased risk of chronic disease. While the Dietary Guidelines are not directly intended for disease treatment, they can be – and often are – adapted by medical and nutrition professionals to encourage their patients to follow healthy dietary patterns. Research has shown that each step closer to eating a diet that aligns with the Dietary Guidelines reduces risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Given its focus on disease prevention and health promotion, the information in the Dietary Guidelines is used to develop Federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs. It also serves as the basis for nutrition education materials designed for the public and for the nutrition education components of the USDA and HHS food programs. State and local governments, schools, the food industry, other businesses, community groups, and media also use Dietary Guidelines information to develop programs, policies, and communication for the general public. Nutrition and health professionals are encouraged to promote the Dietary Guidelines as a means of helping Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet and being physically active at each life stage.

Related Reading and Resources

Previous Editions of the Dietary Guidelines
Table of Dietary Guidance Development 
Summary of Dietary Guidance Digital Collection