Dietary guidelines provide evidence-based statements on food choices to meet nutritional requirements and reduce the risk of prevailing chronic disease. They involve a substantial amount of research translation, and their implementation has important health consequences. Foods, however, are complex combinations of nutrients and other compounds that act synergistically within the food and across food combinations. In addition, the evidence base underpinning dietary guidelines accesses research that reflects different study designs, with inherent strengths and limitations. We propose a systematic approach for the review of evidence that begins with research on dietary patterns. This research will identify the combinations of foods that best protect, or appear deleterious to, health. Next, we suggest that evidence be sought from research that focuses on the effects of individual foods. Finally, nutrient-based research should be considered to explain the mechanisms by which these foods and dietary patterns exert their effects, take into account the effects of ingredients added to the food supply, and enable assessments of dietary sufficiency. The consideration of individual nutrients and food components (e.g., upper limits for saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium) provides important benchmarks for evaluating overall diet quality. The concepts of core and discretionary foods (nutrient-rich and nutrient-poor foods, respectively) enable distinctions between foods, and this has implications for the relation between food policy and food manufacturing. In summary, evidence supporting healthy dietary patterns provides the foundation for the development of dietary guidelines. Further reference to individual foods and nutrients follows from the foundation of healthy dietary patterns.