It's never too early for a healthy diet

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The latest federal dietary guidelines emphasize the importance of healthy eating throughout a lifetime, starting in infancy and including women who are pregnant or nursing.

The recommendations, released every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, are designed to promote nutrition and prevent chronic disease. The guidance influences food and nutrition programs at the federal, state and local levels, and impacts how food companies formulate their products.

The proper diet for babies is critical for brain development and growth, according to nutrition experts, and sets the pattern for eating behaviors that may continue through adulthood.

Make every bit count" is the theme of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and that particularly applies to the youngest among us, who consume so much less.

Among the recommendations for birth to 23 months:

  • Feed infants exclusively human milk for the first 6 months of life. Feeding with human milk should continue through the first year of life or longer. If breastfeeding isn't an option, infants should be given iron-fortified formula.
  • Provide infants with supplemental vitamin D beginning soon after birth.
  • Introduce babies to nutrient-dense, diverse choices from all the food groups at about age 6 months. They should also be exposed to potentially allergenic foods, such as peanuts, eggs, fish and soy.
  • Avoid foods and drinks with added sugars, including fruit drinks, and limit those higher in sodium.

The guidelines also discuss the special dietary considerations – changing calorie and nutrient requirements – of mothers-to-be and women who are lactating. These include:

  • A daily vitamin and mineral supplement for pregnant women, addressing folate/folic acid, iron iodine and vitamin D needs.
  • A different mix of supplements for women who are breastfeeding.
  • Eliminating consumption of alcohol and moderating caffeine intake.
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight for the long-term benefit of mother and child.

It's never too early (or too late). For the first time, the guidelines outline recommendations by life stage, from birth through older adulthood.

It also encourages you to look at the big picture. Foods are not eaten in isolation but in a wide array of combinations over time – a dietary pattern. The idea is to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables rather than focusing on specific nutrients.

To that end, the guidelines recommend people vary their source of protein, fill half their plate with a mix of different fruits and vegetables, select low-fat dairy or soy alternatives, and avoid foods high in sugar, saturated fat and sodium.

Think whole grains, fruits and vegetables; vegetable oils instead of butter or coconut oil; and low-fat dairy and leaner proteins.

To help people get started, the USDA offers MyPlate Plan, an online tool that makes recommendations based on age, sex, height, weight and activity levels.

The guidelines also offer several ideas for making dishes healthier. For example, shave calories off a burrito bowl by using reduced-fat cheese and adding vegetables in place of some of the rice and beans. Choose brown rice instead of white rice to add fiber, which will help you feel full and more likely to skip dessert.