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What We've Learned: Monitoring Diet

Dietary recommendations are aimed at encouraging people to follow dietary patterns that promote health and reduce risks of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. We're interested in monitoring how well the nation's diet compares to current recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPyramid. Here's some of what we've learned:

MyPyramid Food Groups

MyPyramid recommendations for each food group vary depending on a person's energy requirement, which in turn is influenced by sex, age, and activity level. The lower end of the range is generally for very young, inactive children, whereas the upper end is for very active teenage and young adult males.

  • MyPyramid recommendations for fruit intake range from 1 to 2.5 cups per day. Based on 2001–2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, 75% of the US population consumed less than 1.5 cups per day.
  • MyPyramid intake recommendations for dark green and orange vegetables and legumes, collectively, range from .3 to 1.3 cups per day. The usual intake at the 75th percentile was .35 cups per day, for the entire population and among most sex-age groups (2001–2004 NHANES data).
  • MyPyramid intake recommendations for whole grains range from 1.5 to 5 ounces per day. At the 95th percentile, the usual intake for the whole population and among most sex-age groups was less than 2 ounces per day (2001–2004 NHANES data).

Learn more about distributions of usual food intakes in the US population.

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The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that total fat intake be kept between 20% to 35% of calories and that saturated fat intake be less than 10% of calories.

  • Most Americans' dietary fat intake fell within the recommended range. The usual intake at the 5th percentile was 25% of energy for the total population, and the value 35% of energy fell between the 50th and 75th percentiles (2001–2004 NHANES data).
  • Over half the population consumed saturated fat in excess of 10% of calories, as the usual intake at the 50th percentile was 11% of energy for the entire population among most sex-age groups (2001–2004 NHANES data).

Learn more about distributions of intakes as ratios of energy intake.

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Discretionary Calories

MyPyramid does not provide specific intake recommendations for solid fat and added sugars per se, but rather a discretionary calorie allowance that can be used for fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars (SoFAAS) or additional amounts of food groups above the recommended amounts. In other words, SoFAAS count against the discretionary calorie allowance, as do intakes in excess of the recommended amounts of any of the food groups.

Considering all that they are to cover, discretionary calorie allowances are small, ranging from 132 to 648 kilocalories per day, depending on the individual's sex, age and activity level, and are highest for very active individuals. (Note, however, that activity levels of most people in the US population fall short of even minimum recommendations.) Discretionary calorie allowances in MyPyramid range from 8% to 20% of energy.

  • Seventy-five percent or more of the individuals in each subgroup consume more energy from SoFAAS than the maximum discretionary calorie allowance for their sex/age subgroup. Recall that intakes of other food groups in excess of recommendations also count against the discretionary calorie allowance. Therefore, excessive intakes of discretionary calories are of concern for most individuals in all sex-age groups.
  • Even at the 5th percentile, all sex/age subgroups had SoFAAS intakes at or above 20% of energy. Median intakes were about 32% of energy, and across nearly all subgroups, at the tail end of the distribution, intakes of SoFAAS exceeded half the energy intake!
  • Seventy-five percent of the US population had a usual intake of more than 33 gm of solid fat (297 kilocalories) per day and an equivalent percentage had a usual intake of more than 12 teaspoons of added sugars (192 kilocalories) per day.

Learn more about distributions of intakes of solid fats, alcoholic beverages and added sugars.

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Sodium & Potassium

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that all Americans consume less than 2300 mg of sodium (the amount in approximately 1 tsp of salt) per day. They further recommend that Americans consume potassium-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Individuals with hypertension, blacks and middle-aged and older adults should aim to consume no more than 1500 mg of sodium per day and meet the potassium recommendation (4700 mg per day) with food.

  • The major sources of sodium in the US population are yeast breads; chicken and chicken mixed dishes; pizza; pasta and pasta dishes; cold cuts; condiments; Mexican mixed dishes; sausage; franks, bacon and ribs; regular cheese; grain-based desserts; soups and beef and beef mixed dishes. These 12 food groups each supply over 100 mg sodium per person per day to the diet. Collectively, this relatively small group of foods contributes about 56% of the dietary sodium, or nearly 2000 mg per person per day.

Learn more about food sources of sodium and potassium, and how they vary by age, sex, race/ethnicity and income.

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Last Modified: 11 Apr 2014