Protein Intake Recommendations

New Dietary Guidelines Don't Demonize Beef but Favor Seafood

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Dietary Guidelines set daily protein intake between 5 and 7 ounces, depending on diet (range is from 1,600 to 3,000 daily caloric intake for adults ages 19 through 59 years of age). Weekly they call for consumption of 23 to 33 ounces of meats, poultry, eggs; 8 to 10 ounces of seafood; and 4 to 6 ounces of nuts, seeds, soy products. (Getty Stock Photo)

Every five years, a long, and one would have to believe expensive process, ensues where a lengthy list of people with PhDs and MDs behind their names work on a report that will be the foundation for Dietary Guidelines for the next five years.

This year's report was 835 pages. Using that data, a new, formal set of Dietary Guidelines was released by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services at the end of 2020. Did this process, which many say has become overly politicized, change recommendations with regards to protein consumption?

In a word, no. It appears that when it comes to red meat consumption the committee opted to hold the line where it was set over the previous five years. And no news appears to be good news on that front.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association's Danielle Beck, senior executive director of government affairs, commented on the research Committee's recommendations to a DTN/Progressive Farmer request prior to the formal release of the new guidelines. She said in an email response that thanks to work by NCBA the process was "a far more fair and balanced process" when compared to the development of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

Beck said she believed the Committee's 2020 Scientific Report was "focused on sound nutritional science" while it largely maintained recommendations from 2015. She called new recommendations focused on Birth to 24 Months, encouraging for beef and noted she believed they "recognized beef's overall role as part of a healthy, balanced diet."


For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee expanded recommendations to include children ages 12 to 24 months. It also considered the impact of food insecurity on Americans' health.

Reviewing the Committee's executive summary, the bad news comes early. This is the news Americans pretty much ignore. To put it in a nutshell, we are fat (70% overweight or obese) and we are sick (6 in 10 have one chronic condition; 4 in 10 have two or more chronic conditions). Add to this, food insecurity and a lack of access to affordable and heathy food.

Using 2018 data, the Committee reported more than 37 million people (6 million of them children) live in households uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet their needs. The Committee noted it began work in March 2019, and when it submitted its report the country was in the midst of the pandemic. The group noted that as more is learned about the infection "it is clear that it has significant nutritional implications."

Those most at risk for serious outcomes from COVID-19, noted the report, are those afflicted by diet-related chronic diseases.

"Throughout the world, the consequences of physical isolation and financial disruption by the threat of COVID-19 infection has led to significant increases in food insecurity and hunger, furthering increasing susceptibility to both infectious and diet-related chronic disease," reported the Committee's Chair, Barbara Schneeman; and vice chair, Ronald Kleinman.

There were some key takeaways from the early report, with regards to what we should eat and how this might impact chronic illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, follow. Not all of these became formal recommendations, but they provide a background for the finalized 2020-2025 guidelines.

*Pregnancy and Lactation. Pregnant women, the Committee reported, should consume 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week, making choices that are lower in methylmercury and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. Folic acid supplementation was associated with better "maternal folate status" during pregnancy and reduced risk of hypertensive disorders among women at high risk or with a previous history of these disorders. Some limited evidence suggested supplementation with Omega-3 fatty acids could lead to "favorable cognitive development in children".

*Birth to Age 24 Months. Nutritional exposures in the first 1,000 days of life contribute to long-term health and help shape taste preferences and food choice. Evidence suggests human milk feeding may be related to infant fatty acid status, depending on maternal diet. The Committee supported recommendations for lactating women to consume food sources of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fish. Beginning at 12 months the Committee established a recommended food pattern that allowed for a variety of "nutrient-rich, animal-source foods, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products, as well as nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and grain products." Again, the Committee "prioritized seafood".

*Disease and Food Choice. The Committee considered the effect food choice has on disease, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, bone health, cancer and even neurocognitive health.

  • Cardiovascular. Diets lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium; and richer in fiber, potassium and unsaturated fats are beneficial for reducing cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Obesity. Moderate evidence indicated diets emphasizing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; seafood and legumes; moderate in dairy products and alcohol; lower in meats (including red and processed meats), and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains are associated with favorable outcomes related to body weight or risk of obesity.
  • Type 2 Diabetes. Moderate evidence indicated diets higher in vegetables, fruits and whole grains and lower in red and processed meats, high-fat dairy products, refined grains and sweets/sugar-sweetened beverages reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Bone Health. Moderate evidence indicated a diet higher in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and fish, and lower in meats (particularly processed meats), sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets is associated with favorable bone health outcomes in adults, primarily decreased risk of hip fracture.
  • Cancers. In this case the Committee looked at various types of cancer, including breast cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer. No relationship between diet and risk of prostate cancer was found; evidence was also limited with lung cancer. In the cases of colorectal and breast cancer, a moderate evidence link found diets higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean meats and seafood, and low-fat dairy, and lower in red and processed meats, saturated fat and sugar were positive.
  • Neurocognitive Health. There was limited evidence that diets were associated with lower risk of age-related cognitive impairment and/or dementia.


The theme of the finalized report is "Make Every Bite Count". This ninth edition of the dietary guidelines starts at birth. The 164-page guideline is available online at

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar noted the guidelines were expanded this time to provide new guidance for infants, toddlers and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

Summarizing, the recommendations are broken into four areas. The first carries one from birth to a year of age; the second tells everyone to eat nutrient dense foods and beverages that "reflect our personal preferences, cultural traditions and budgetary consideration,"; the third tells us to stay within our calorie limits; and the fourth says we need to limit foods and beverages that are "higher in added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages."

Step four, obviously, is the real joy killer. Specifically the guidelines state added sugars should make up less than 10% of someone's daily caloric intake, beginning at age two. Saturated fat should make up less than 10% of daily caloric intake. Sodium should be held at less than 2,300 milligrams per day. And alcohol should be limited to no more than two drinks a day for men, and one for women.

How does red meat fare in these recommendations? Nothing specific in the report points to red meat positively or negatively. The emphasis is on lean meats, and seafood is singled out as protein intake is discussed through the guidelines, with it noted that "almost 90% do not meet the recommendation for seafood, and more than half do not meet the recommendation for nuts, seeds and soy products."

About 43% of all protein is consumed as what is called "a separate food item" such as a chicken breast, a steak, an egg, a fish filet or peanuts. About the same percentage (48%) is consumed in a mixed dish--the largest being sandwiches, burgers and tacos.

"Shifts are needed within the protein foods group to add variety to subgroup intakes," notes the guidelines. "Selecting from the seafood subgroup or the beans, peas and lentils subgroup more often could help meet recommendations while still ensuring adequate protein consumption.

"Replacing processed or high-fat meats with seafood could help lower intake of saturated fat and sodium, nutrients that are often consumed in excess of recommended limits."

Recommendations for adults ages 19 through 59, set a daily allotment of protein at 5 ounces for a 1,600 calorie diet; up to 7 ounces for a 3,000 calorie diet. For the week it makes recommendations that adults consume (based on daily caloric intake needs) between 23 and 33 ounces of meats, poultry, eggs; 8 to 10 ounces of seafood; and 4 to 6 ounces of nuts, seeds, soy products.

Lastly, there appears to be a lot of room for improvement when it comes to Americans following healthy dietary guidelines. The report notes while adherence to the guidelines historically varies by age, it tends to be between a score of 51 and 63.

Victoria Myers