New Dietary Guidelines Made Simple

Read This Article or I'll Eat This Donut!

By Terry Dunkle, DietPower founder and editor-in-chief

Glazed Donut
If you don't finish this article, I'm going to eat this donut—and it'll be all your fault.

In January 2005 the U.S. government released a revised edition of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It was a big event. Nutrition scientists had reviewed hundreds of studies published since the last edition, five years earlier. Two cabinet officers—the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services—staged a press conference. Health pundits expressed hope that the new guidelines would profoundly affect America's eating habits and turn back the tide of obesity.

Fat chance, if they're asking us to read the Guidelines ourselves. The new document is a study in bureaucratic gobbledygook. Written by committee, it gives tired old stuff and brand new findings equal weight. ("Nutrients should come primarily from food," says one passage.) The prose has a Fog Index* of 17, which means you need a master's degree to decipher it. And the document is more than 20,000 words long.

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There are ways to entice people to read what is good for them, of course. Throw in a little humor and suspense, or deploy a cheap trick like the headline I put on this story. The government cannot do that, of course. Humor would seem irresponsible. But it could simply tell us what's new, in plain English, without mincing words, couldn't it?

I'm not going to wait around to see. Below is DietPower's condensed version of the original Guidelines, with a a few helper facts inserted. (Most of the links point to chapters in DietPower's help system.) Read these 1400 words and you won't miss any useful facts. You won't have to work hard, either—our version has a Fog Index of 8, meaning it's easy enough for an an eighth-grader.

What the New Dietary Guidelines Say

A. Nutrition in General


  1. Why you should know these guidelines: Paying just a little more attention to your diet can make a big difference in your health. Poor nutrition and inactivity are now America's second leading cause of death, right behind tobacco use. They kill 300,000 each year—eight times as many as auto accidents. [Editor's note: After the Guidelines were released, more definitive studies lowered this number to 112,000 deaths, or three times as many as in auto accidents.]

  2. How to think about foods: Every food contains two kinds of stuff. One is calories, which provide energy but can make you fat if you get too many. The other is nutrients (vitamins and minerals), which keep you healthy but can make you sick if you get too much or too little of them. (The right amount of a nutrient for an average American is called its "Daily Value.")

  3. There are two kinds of food. One kind (french fries, candy) is richer in calories; the other kind (green beans, tomatoes) is richer in nutrients. Learn the difference by reading food labels. If a serving contains a big percentage of the Daily Value of calories but a much smaller percentage of nutrients, then obviously it's calorie-rich. If the opposite is true, it's nutrient-rich.

  4. Major rule: Make sure you get enough nutrient-rich foods before grabbing the calorie-rich kind. If you haven't gotten much vitamin C today, for example, you'd be wiser to drink orange juice than orange soda.

  5. Cut back on saturated fats—the kind that are solid at room temperature. They usually come from meat or cheese.

  6. Avoid trans fats—the kind in partially hardened vegetable oils. They hide in cookies and other baked goods. They're easy to spot, though: look for partially hydrogenated in the label.

  7. Limit your cholesterol intake. Your body can make all the cholesterol it needs from the fats you eat.

  8. Download DietPower free trial Shun foods with added sugar or corn syrup. Biggest culprit: soft drinks.

  9. Almost everybody gets far too much sodium. Store-bought soup (especially dried soup) is a notorious carrier. So are chips and other salty snacks.

  10. Don't average more than one alcoholic drink per day if you're a woman, two if you're a man. If you can't limit your intake, don't drink at all.

  11. Try eating by the Food Pyramid or the DASH Diet. Either one will provide a healthy nutrient balance.

Some People

  1. Over 50? Take a vitamin B12 supplement or eat B12-fortified cereal.

  2. Might get pregnant? Make sure you get enough iron. (If you get it from supplements or plant foods instead of red meat, you also need plenty of vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron.)

  3. Might get pregnant or already in your first trimester? Prevent birth defects by getting lots of folate. Eat whole grains, dark leafy greens, and dried peas and beans—but take a folate supplement, too.

  4. Elderly? Dark-skinned? Don't get much sunshine? Take a vitamin-D supplement or drink vitamin-D-enriched milk.

(For more details on food groups and nutrients, see sections D through H, below.)

B. Weight Management


  1. Calories—not carbs, protein, grapefruit, or any other nutrient or food—are the key to weight control.

  2. To lose weight permanently, get more exercise and eat slightly fewer calories. Don't cut calories to the point where your nutrients suffer.

Some People

  1. Overweight and under 18? Ask a doctor or a dietitian how to drop pounds without stunting your growth.

  2. Download DietPower free trial Pregnant? Ask your doctor how much weight to gain, and how fast.

  3. Breastfeeding? You can lose weight at a moderate pace without hurting your baby's growth.

  4. Have a chronic disease or take medications? Don't start a diet without getting your doctor's advice.

C. Physical Activity


  1. Get regular exercise. Even if it's just using the stairs instead of the elevator, it'll make you healthier, thinner, and happier.

  2. Do 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days to significantly lower your heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other risks. Increase the time or intensity to cut the risks even more.

  3. Do 60 minutes on most days to prevent age-related weight gain.**

  4. Do 60 to 90 minutes to lose weight.** (That's a lot. See a doctor first.)

  5. Vary your activities. Do aerobics (walking, running, swimming, calisthenics) for cardiovascular health and endurance. Do stretches for flexibility. Do resistance training (weights, machines) for muscle strength.

Some People

  1. Under 19? Get at least 60 minutes of physical activity almost every day.

  2. Pregnant? If your doctor approves, get at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days.

  3. Breastfeeding? Even strenuous exercise won't harm your milk supply.

  4. Senior citizen? Regular exercise slows physical decline, lowers disease risks, and makes you feel better and think better.

D. Food Groups


  1. Get about two cups of fruit and 2-1/2 cups of vegetables per day. (Drinks count if they're 100-percent juice. Read the label.)

  2. Don't eat the same fruits and vegetables all the time. Try to hit all five groups of vegetables several times a week: dark green, orange, legume, starch, and "other."

  3. Get at least three ounces of whole-grain foods per day. (That's three slices of whole-grain bread.) If you insist on eating other grains, at least choose enriched varieties.

  4. Download DietPower free trial Drink three cups of low-fat or skim milk per day, or get the equivalent from cheese, yogurt, or other milk products.

Some People

  1. Under 19? Eat a lot of grains—at least half of them whole grains.

  2. Two to eight years old? Drink two cups of low-fat or skim milk per day, or get the equivalent in cheese, yogurt, or other milk products.

  3. Nine or older? Do the same, but make it three cups per day.

E. Fats


  1. Get 20 to 35 percent of your calories from fat. (Watch food labels—they always cite the % of calories from fat.)

  2. Get less than 10 percent of your calories from saturated fat. (Again, see the labels.) This is easier if you emphasize fish, nuts, and vegetable oils over meat and poultry.

  3. Get less than 300 milligrams per day of cholesterol.

  4. Try to get no trans fats.

  5. Learn to like lean or low-fat meat, poultry, beans, and milk.

Some People

  1. Two or three years old? Get 30 to 35 percent of your calories from fat—mostly the unsaturated kind found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.

  2. Four to 18 years old? Get 25 to 35 percent of your calories from fat—chiefly unsaturated fat.

F. Carbohydrates


  1. When choosing fruits, vegetables, and grains, go for those high in fiber.

  2. Avoid foods with a lot of added sugar or corn syrup.

  3. Brush your teeth often, to prevent cavities.

G. Sodium and Potassium


  1. Most people get too much sodium and too little potassium. Balancing these two minerals is vital to healthy blood pressure.

  2. Download DietPower free trial Get less than 2300 milligrams of sodium per day—the amount in one teaspoon of salt.

  3. Eat lots of potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Some People

  1. Hypertensive? African-American? Middle-aged or older? Try to get less than 1500 milligrams of sodium and more than 4700 milligrams of potassium per day. (It's better to get potassium from food, not supplements.)

H. Alcohol


  1. If you drink, take only one drink per day if you're a woman, two if you're a man. A "drink" is one 12-ounce beer, five ounces of wine, or 1-1/2 ounces of distilled liquor.

Some People

  1. Can't stop at one or two drinks? Might get pregnant? Already pregnant or lactating? Under 18 or 21? Taking drugs that interact with alcohol? Have an alcohol-sensitive medical condition? Driving or operating machinery? Don't drink at all.

I. Food Safety


  1. Besides your hands, wash cutting boards, counters, and fruits and vegetables. (Don't wash or rinse meat and poultry, however. This only increases the risk that bacteria will hitch a ride to other foods via your hands. If you cook meat or poultry to the right temperature, the heat alone will kill any harmful germs.)

  2. When handling raw food that may harbor bacteria (meat, poultry, or eggs, for example), don't let it touch cooked or other ready-to-eat foods.

  3. Refrigerate perishables promptly.

  4. When defrosting, don't let foods sit a long time at room temperature.

  5. Cook foods to a temperature that kills germs.

  6. Download DietPower free trial Avoid raw (unpasteurized) milk, raw or partially cooked eggs, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, unpasteurized juices, and raw sprouts—or anything containing these.

Some People

  1. Infant or young child? Pregnant? Elderly? Immunocompromised? Besides the foods in No. 6 (above), eschew raw or undercooked fish or shellfish.

  2. Pregnant? Elderly? Immunocompromised? Don't eat frankfurters or certain deli meats without reheating them until they steam—even if they say "precooked" or "ready to eat."


The Fog Index is a simple tool for quantifying the readability of English prose. You can use it to improve your own writing. Checking a sample of a least 200 words, find the percentage of "big words"—words of three syllables or more. (Don't count three-syllable words ending in ed or es, short-word compounds like butterfly and bookkeeper, or proper names.) Add the average sentence length in words, multiply by 0.4, and drop everything after the decimal point. The result is your Fog Index, which indicates the number of years of formal education required for easy comprehension. (This paragraph has a Fog Index of 9.) No matter who your audience is, aim for a Fog Index of 12 or lower. If you go higher, even a Ph.D. will begin to nod off.


Obviously, these won't work if you eat too many calories!

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