Are the New Dietary Recommendations Brain-Friendly?

March is National Nutrition Month! Your food choices have a profound impact on your mood, body and cognitive health.  With the release of a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, it’s the perfect time to explore these recommendations; what’s changed and what might mislead those interested in using food to better their brain.

The Dietary Guidelines are a set of nutrition recommendations updated every 5 years by the USDA, since their first publication in 1980.  The Guidelines outline specific nutrition recommendations to help Americans develop healthy eating habits and promote health. They are also used to guide federal food programs and school lunches.  Most of the Dietary Guidelines have stayed the same: emphasizing nutrient-dense foods, paying attention to calories, and limiting sodium, sugar, and alcohol. However, there are a few key updates:

  1. The 2020 Guidelines recognize that many chronic diseases are related to diet, such as, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The focus has shifted to prevention in healthy individuals, not just those at risk, stating that everyone can benefit from better food choices.
  2. The Guidelines focus on dietary patterns, rather than isolated nutrients or food groups. Consuming an unhealthy food occasionally isn’t likely to have a great impact our health; rather, there is a cumulative effect based on our habits over time. These habits, or dietary patterns, are what will influence our health in the long run.
  3. The Guidelines take a lifespan approach, recognizing that nutrient needs vary over time. For the first time since 1985, there are recommendations for infants and toddlers to consume only breast milk (or iron-fortified formula) for the first six months of life, and no added sugar under the age of 2.


Though these Guidelines are designed to give Americans some direction on what a healthy diet should include, many health experts feel they fall short, especially when we are looking to prevent chronic diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease. One such area is the continued emphasis on dairy. This is most likely due to the influence of the dairy industry on the USDA, rather than any health benefits. Dairy is a leading source of saturated fat and can drive inflammation, a main contributor to dementia and other chronic diseases. Though it can be included in moderation, many health experts agree it is over-consumed and not necessary for good health.

Another key area left unaddressed is the recommendation on sugar. Current recommendations are to limit sugar intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. Sugar is something that contains no health benefits and instead is a major contributor to chronic diseases. The brain is especially susceptible to the effects of sugar and should be limited even further with suggestions of less than 6 percent of daily calories. It’s suggested that this was not addressed in the Dietary Guidelines in order to make healthy eating recommendations more attainable.

It’s important to note that the Dietary Guidelines are not intended to be a clinical guideline or an exact outline for how everyone should eat, as we all have individual needs, preferences, and sensitivity to foods. If you are looking for a specific diet for cognitive health, a Mediterranean diet or other diets high in plant foods like non-starchy vegetables, berries, almonds, and seeds and rich in healthy fats like avocadoes and wild fish are a great way to keep your brain healthy.

Let’s talk about your health and nutrition goals!  Book a complimentary 15-minute consult with me; call Kemper Cognitive Wellness to schedule – 216/337-1400 x2.

– Nikki Gould, RDN, Nutritionist for Kemper Cognitive Wellness