Every 5 years, the USDA releases the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These are evidence-based guidelines that explain what we should be eating to promote long term health and reduce risk of chronic disease. However, not many changes were made to the most recent DGA that were released back in December for 2020-2025. The biggest change was organizing nutritional guidelines by stage of life.
The DGA emphasizes nutrient dense foods and a reduction of red/processed meats and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. However, it does not explicitly say that we should shift to a mostly plant based diet. Given the current body of research on nutrition, disease, and longevity, it is clear that adopting a whole foods plant based diet is most beneficial to our health and the environment.
Plant based diets…
- Reduce risk of cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and diabetes
- Decrease inflammation and can therefore help reduce the risk of and/or treat inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis
- Promote gut health
- Lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels
- Slow cognitive decline
- Reduce carbon and water footprint
If you are looking for a starting point for making dietary changes to promote adequate nutrient requirements and long term health, the DGA is perfect for you. It gives specific recommendations on fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, protein, and oils. However, if you are looking to adopt a mostly plant based diet, you may need a little more information, particularly on dairy and protein.
To help you on your journey of plant based eating, we are going to break down the DGA’s recommendations for each food group and give you alternate plant based options that will help you reach your nutritional needs in a sustainable way.
Fruits and Vegetables
The DGA recommends 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day, which equates to about 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Vegetables are broken down even further (based on a 2,000 calorie diet):
- Dark-Green Vegetables: 1 ½ cups per week
- Red and Orange Vegetables: 5 ½ cups per week
- Beans, Peas, Lentils: 1 ½ cups per week
- Starchy Vegetables: 5 cups per week
- Other Vegetables: 4 cups per week
For plant based eating, not much has to change. By reducing intake of animal products, you will most likely eat more fruits and veggies than the recommended servings in the DGA. Many experts say we should actually be eating 5-9 servings per day for optimal benefits.
The DGA recommends more than 3 servings of whole grains (whole wheat, quinoa, oats, brown rice, popcorn, barley) per day and less than 3 servings of refined grains (white bread, white rice, cakes, pastries) per day. A whole foods plant based diet includes very few refined grains. This type of grain has been stripped of most of its nutrients, most importantly fiber, through processing and is linked to diabetes and heart disease.
This is where the dietary guidelines start to get challenging for plant based eaters who either eliminate or greatly reduce dairy. The DGA recommends 3 cups of dairy per day because of its high nutritional content and possible health benefits. However, a recent review of this evidence published in the New England Journal of Medicine says that the recommended 3 servings of dairy is not justified by research.
Some alternatives to dairy would be switching out a glass of milk for water or a dairy free alternative that is fortified with calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and B12. The dietary guidelines recommends soy based products as the best alternative because they are closest to the nutrient composition of dairy.
The DGA recommends eating a variety of nutrient dense protein sources, but still relies heavily on animal based sources. It recommends eating 26 oz of meat, poultry, and eggs per week and 8 oz for seafood, while only 5 oz of nuts, seeds, and soy products. However, you are perfectly capable of reaching your recommended protein intake (.8g per kg of bodyweight) by eating entirely plant based. In addition to nuts, seeds, and soy products, beans, peas, lentils, and quinoa are excellent sources of plant based protein.
The DGA recommends consuming 27 grams of oils per day, which is about 2 tbsps. All oils, such as olive, canola, peanut, avocado, and sunflower, are naturally plant based and provide polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which are essential to our health. If you are following the meditteranean diet, which is a predominantly plant based diet, you will most likely consume more than the recommended amount due to the high amounts of olive oil. However, research demonstrates that this type of diet can be very beneficial to your health, especially with reducing risk for cardiovascular disease.
You Do YOU
The dietary guidelines are very broad recommendations for the entire population, which means that diets will vary from person to person. It is also important to remember that nutrition is not the only factor impacting food choices. The DGA states that you must also take into account personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations. If you focus on all of these factors, in addition to emphasizing plant based foods, you will be able to adopt a healthy diet that is sustainable for both you and the environment.
If you want help developing a healthy, plant based diet that is right for you, email B.Komplete at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.