Then vs. Now: The Evolution of the Dietary Guidelines

Today’s guidelines preach moderation, but it hasn’t always been that way.

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One of the most important resources for nutrition advice in the United States is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Whether or not people sit down and read every page, they benefit from these guidelines. They’ll likely hear the advice from their doctors, or even on the evening news. The guidelines may also affect what meals are offered in public schools, hospitals, or long-term care facilities.

While there’s always been dietary advice, the Dietary Guidelines didn’t exist until 1980. That’s when public health nutritionists realized that a major campaign was needed to help Americans choose healthier eating patterns. Given the recommendations you might hear today about moderation, it might be hard to believe that the earliest dietary advice was about making sure you were eating enough food.

Nutrition Before the Dietary Guidelines

Today, you can roam the grocery store and choose between 10 flavors of potato chips and an entire aisle of different cereals. It’s hard to imagine a time when safe food was more scarce, harder to access, and less affordable.

The 19th and 20th centuries were a major time for nutrition science. This is when scientists first discovered individual nutrients. Casimir Funk, a Polish biochemist, coined the word vitamine in 1912. He formed the word by combining “vital” and “amines,” since he thought these vitamins were like the amino acids in proteins. (This turned out not to be the case, but the word persevered.)

Scientists didn’t just identify important vitamins and minerals. They also realized that a lack of these vitamins were causing some of the many common diseases at the time. For example:

  • Rickets came from a lack of vitamin D
  • Scurvy came from a lack of vitamin C
  • Beriberi came from a lack of vitamin B-1
  • Goiter came from a lack of iodine

As a result, dietary guidance at the time encouraged people to get enough of these nutrients—and enough calories in general. The government also encouraged food companies to fortify popular foods to help combat these illnesses. In 1924, companies began fortifying salt with iodine to help combat rates of goiter. They began adding vitamin D to milk in 1933, and began adding thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron to flour in 1940. (This is why some flours are still called “enriched” today.)

How Modern Agriculture Changed Diets

In the mid-20th century, modern agriculture revolutionized the American diet. Food became cheaper and more readily available. There was a boom of fast food options. Processed food like TV dinners and canned soups became the norm. Getting “enough” food was no longer the main concern.

The rise in cheap and highly processed food came with consequences. Americans were no longer having diseases from deficiency; instead, they were having diseases of excess. The increased consumption of fat, sodium, and sugar was causing a rise in chronic diseases, like heart diseases and diabetes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, heart disease was a pretty rare cause of death. Six decades later, it was the most common cause of death in the United States. Public health nutritionists had major cause for concern, and they quickly took action.

The First Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Experts realized that Americans needed more guidance for how to eat better. In 1980, they released the very first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It was a combined effort of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This original document, which was an 18-page pamphlet, focused on seven key points:

  • Eat a variety of foods
  • Maintain an ideal weight
  • Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol
  • Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber
  • Avoid too much sugar
  • Avoid too much sodium
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation

These recommendations are pretty consistent with today’s recommendations, but the language has changed. One criticism of the original guidelines was that the wording seemed very negative and restrictive. It focused on telling people what not to eat.

Revising the Guidelines

A revised edition of the guidelines comes out every five years. The revisions reflect the latest research—not only for what to eat but also the best way to teach healthy eating. For example, the 1990 revision emphasized enjoyment of food and moderation, which helped counteract the restrictive tone from the original document.

Here are other notable updates from the revised guidelines:

  • 2000: The guidelines took a strong stance to avoid trans fats. At this point, the dangers of trans fats to heart health had become clear. (Learn about the history of trans fats here.)
  • 2010: The phrase “plant-based” was used for the first time. The guidelines encouraged Americans to get more protein from plant sources instead of animal sources. This helps reduce intake of fat and increase intake of fiber.
  • 2020: The guidelines added unique recommendations for each stage of the lifespan. For example, they made the bold recommendation that parents should not give foods with added sugar to children under the age of 2.

As the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have aged, they’ve also gotten longer. While the authors wrote the original document for consumers, more recent versions were written for dietitians, policy makers, and other experts. As a result, the newer guidelines are longer, more complex, and nuanced (the 2020 edition is 130 pages long, not including the appendixes). The intention is to educate the experts, who can then educate the consumers with personalized advice.

Sorting through the abundance of nutrition information on the internet can be overwhelming. If you’re stressed or confused about making healthy choices, the best person to talk to is a registered dietitian. Learn more about what to expect at a nutrition appointment here.