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History

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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, and 2015-2020 editions of the Dietary Guidelines.

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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 eating 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 eating pattern can have interactive, synergistic, and potentially cumulative relationships, such that the eating pattern may be more predictive of overall health status and disease risk than individual foods or nutrients. Thus, eating patterns, and their food and nutrient components, are at the core of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

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 Advisory Committee. Existing systematic reviews from other entities that are relevant, timely, and of high-quality have also been a source of evidence of previous 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 scientific foundation of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines was based on the findings from the Advisory Committee’s scientific report, which was informed by the following methods:

  • Original systematic reviews of scientific research;
  • Review of existing systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and reports by Federal agencies or leading scientific organizations;
  • Food pattern modeling analyses; and
  • Analyses of current intake of the U.S. population.

Together, these 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.

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, more recent editions also have included 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 eating 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.

Nutrition and health professionals actively promote the Dietary Guidelines as a means of encouraging Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet and being physically active at each life stage. Future editions of the Dietary Guidelines will continue to evolve to reflect the body of science that is available. Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines will expand to include focused guidance for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding, as well as infants and toddlers from birth to 2 years of age.

Related Reading and Resources

Previous Editions of the Dietary Guidelines
Table of Dietary Guidelines Development 
Dietary Guidelines Infographic 
Historical Dietary Guidance Digital Collection

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans development process is under way. View our progress below.

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Topic and Question Identification

Learn more about the first call for public comments

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In this new step, the Departments asked for public comments on topics and scientific questions to be examined by the Committee to support the development of the upcoming 2020-2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines. The topics and scientific questions shaped the areas of scientific expertise needed on the Committee.

Learn More Review Comments

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Advisory Committee Selection

Learn more about the Advisory Committee

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The Committee will conduct an independent, science-based review of specific topics and supporting scientific questions related to nutrition and health – from birth into older adulthood. USDA and HHS will consider the Committee’s scientific review as the Departments develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Learn More View Topics and Questions

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Advisory Committee’s Scientific Review

Learn more about the scientific review

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The Committee is currently reviewing the scientific evidence. The public is invited to attend the Committee’s meetings, and is welcome to submit comments to the Committee throughout its work. The Committee’s work will end with the release of its scientific report to the Secretaries of USDA and HHS in 2020.

Learn More Submit Comments Review of the Science

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USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines Development 

The Dietary Guidelines is designed to help all Americans eat a healthier diet 

USDA and HHS update the Dietary Guidelines every five years. As they develop the Guidelines, USDA and HHS will consider the Committee’s scientific report – along with input from Federal agencies and the public. This work will end with the release of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Learn More