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Food Pattern Modeling for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee


Food pattern modeling is one of three scientific approaches that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee used in its review of current scientific evidence. The food pattern modeling analysis approach helps explain how changes to food-based dietary recommendations could potentially affect Americans’ ability to meet their nutrient needs. 

Food pattern modeling is a way to evaluate the impact of specific changes in amounts or types of foods and beverages in a dietary pattern on meeting food group recommendations and nutrient needs. These food pattern modeling tests inform USDA’s development of relevant dietary patterns for the American population that reflect health-promoting patterns identified in systematic reviews and meet nutrient recommendations.

food pattern modeling computer with graphs on screen

Food Pattern Modeling for the 2020 Advisory Committee

Food pattern modeling was used to answer a portion of the topics and supporting scientific questions the 2020 Dietary Advisory Committee examined. These questions look at:

  • The ability to meet nutrient recommendations for each stage of life through variations in USDA Food Patterns.
  • The relationship between added sugars consumption and achieving nutrient and food group recommendations. 

The Committee, with support from Federal staff, determined a protocol, or plan, that included the analytic framework that described the overall scope and approach used to answer the question and an analytic plan that detailed the data and subsequent analysis to be conducted. The results of each analysis that were used to answer a question are summarized in the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

Food Pattern Modeling Process

Food pattern modeling is possible through the modification of food groups and nutrient profiles of each food group. The current USDA Food Patterns provide amounts of five major food groups and subgroups including:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables: Dark-green, red/orange, beans and peas, starchy, and other
  • Dairy, including calcium fortified soy beverage
  • Grains: Whole grains and refined grains
  • Protein Foods: Meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; nuts, seeds, and soy products

Food groups used in food pattern modeling have a nutrient profile based on a weighted average of nutrient-dense forms of foods. The most nutrient-dense forms of foods are those prepared with the lowest amounts of sodium, saturated fat and added sugars. The weighted average calculation considers a range of American food choices, but in nutrient-dense forms and results in a food pattern that can be adapted to fit an individual’s preferences. 

The food group structure and corresponding nutrient profiles of the food patterns allowed the Advisory Committee to use food pattern modeling tests to see how proposed changes to food pattern elements might affect food group amounts and nutrient adequacy across the life-span. The nutrient content for patterns at 12 energy levels were compared to the Dietary Reference Intakes for more than 30 nutrients.

Four elements can be modified in a food pattern modeling test:

  1. Food group amounts and amounts of added sugars, oils, and saturated fats in the patterns
  2. Inclusion or exclusion of certain foods or food groups
  3. Nutrient goals and constraints
  4. Nutrient profiles for a food group or subgroup

The results of food pattern modeling tests are interpreted under the premise of two key assumptions. First, modeling tests are based on nutrient profiles of nutrient-dense foods in the U.S. food supply and U.S. population-based dietary data. Population-based patterns articulate the evidence on the relationships between diet and health in way that might be adopted by the American public. Second, modeling tests assume population-wide compliance with all food intake recommendations. As with other types of modeling, food pattern modeling is hypothetical and does not predict the behaviors of individuals. 

Food Pattern Modeling Team

The food pattern modeling team supported the work of the Committee to answer specific topics and questions. It was comprised of nutrition scientists and data analysts on the Nutrition and Economic Analysis Team at the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion within the Food and Nutrition Service.

For More Information

Please view the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and the online-only food pattern modeling supplements to learn more about the Advisory Committee’s work.