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How to Bite Off What You Can Chew Using New Dietary Guidelines

Don’t Be Intimidated, Beware of Sandwiches and Limit the Alcohol, UMD Expert Says

By Liam Farrell

Plate illustration: vary your vegetables, focus on whole fruits, make half your grains whole grains, rotate your protein routine, move to low-fat or fat-free dairy milk or yogurt (or lactose-free dairy or fortified soy versions), choose foods and beverages with less added sugars, saturated fat and sodium

Illustration by Valerie Morgan

Watch your sugar, sodium and fat intakes, a UMD dietetics expert who analyzed the new federal nutrition guidelines advises.

For anyone clinging to New Year’s resolutions to turn over a new health leaf or just hoping to cut down on snacking in a kitchen-turned-home office, the federal government last month served up its latest food guidance.

Updated every five years, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans has given its latest verdict on how you should build your plate three times a day, drawing some criticism for being a little lax on sugar and alcohol. Maryland Today spoke with Margaret Udahogora, a lecturer in the UMD Department of Nutrition and Food Science and an expert in dietetics, about how you should approach a new menu.

Don’t feel overwhelmed
If you feel anxiety about trying to radically change your grocery list and dinner plans (all amid the ongoing pandemic), Udahogora said to focus first on the more general goal of getting into a “healthy dietary pattern” rather than digging into the quantity of each vitamin and mineral.

“We eat food—we do not eat nutrients,” she said.

That means heading for vegetables, beans and lentils, with whole fruits instead of juices, and low-fat dairy products. The digital age offers some additional help as well, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture breaking down what a plate should look like and tips for shopping smart and on budget.

Watch sugar, saturated fat and sodium
Once you’re ready to get deeper into the details, the new guidelines recommend the following limits:

  • Added sugars: less than 10% of calories per day;
  • Saturated fat: less than 10% of calories per day; and
  • Sodium intake: less than 2,300 mg per day.

Saturated fats don’t just come from obvious candidates like fried chicken, Udahogora said, but can add up among the ingredients for entrees like sandwiches, tacos and casseroles as well. Eating home-cooked meals is a good way to reduce sodium intake, she said, which is heaviest in processed food and restaurant takeout.

The diet boogeymen of cholesterol and trans fats are less important to track and will regulate properly if an overall diet is healthy.

Limit daily alcohol servings
Against a backdrop of booming alcohol sales during the COVID pandemic, some researchers were disappointed the new regulations did not heed calls from a scientific advisory committee to be stricter on recommended alcohol consumption, and instead remained at two drinks or fewer a day for men and no more than one for women, rather than lowering men to one or fewer as well. (The government also did not lower added sugars to a suggested 6% of daily calories)

Udahogora, however, noted that the guidelines do say for the first time that those limits apply each day—you can’t save up during the week and then toss back seven drinks on Friday and Saturday nights, for example.

“They made it clear we don’t need to drink,” she said. “Pay attention to the number of servings.” 



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.