A draft of the official new U.S. recommendations for Americans’ diets is out, and for the first time the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has advocated for strong consideration of environmental sustainability in our consumption patterns. Not surprisingly, the “green” aspects of their recommendations are controversial.
The committee’s guidance will weigh heavily in the final guidelines issued later this year, after public comment, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which will use them to guide spending on government food programs and to educate the American public on the latest thinking about nutrition.
The federal government uses this process to revise its standards every five years, and for the most part, previous panels have stuck with recommendations that hew closely to preferences for individual nutrition. Over the years, that has meant more and more favoring of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and increasing disfavor for salt and carbohydrates. The biggest dietary shifts in this quintennial list of recommendations are to warn against consumption of added sugar and to eliminate prohibition of dietary cholesterol, which no longer seems to be the culprit in clogged arteries.
In fact, the committee’s tack toward a sustainability ethos arguably is the most significant new ground they’re plowing. Specifically, the committee is recommending that Americans limit their meat intake and eat more plant-based foods, because of the heavier carbon footprint of livestock production. The guideline draft also encourages consumption of seafood stocks that aren’t threatened. And this version of the advisory committee recommended that a product’s environmental footprint should be disclosed in food or menu labels.
The committee said that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use when compared with three recommended dietary patterns: the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern.
“Addressing this complete [sustainability] challenge is essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations,” the committee said in its recommendations — though it stopped short of telling people not to eat meat: “No food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes.”
Of course, meat interests weren’t happy. “The committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise,” said Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute, which represents beef and poultry producers. The industry believes that the panel is pursuing a broader anti-meat agenda, the Wall Street Journal reported, and isn’t taking into account the nutrient density of meat and poultry.
And the committee’s report did advise eliminating “lean meat” from the list of healthy foods because there isn’t a standard definition for what qualifies as lean meat, even though the nutritionists did acknowledge in a footnote that lean meat could have a role in a good diet.
Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, also editorialized in the New York Times that allowing the lean-meat recommendation to stand when the final guidelines are issued would be a mistake: “Fewer protein choices will likely encourage Americans to eat even more carbs,” Teicholz said. “It will also have policy implications: Meat could be limited in school lunches and other federal food programs.”
Every five-year version of the dietary panel wants to leave a legacy, it seems — to show that their work matters and to improve upon that of the previous group. Unfortunately, this group may have strayed too far from simply sound nutritional science and into ideology to make the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines clear and actionable for a public just beginning to wrap its head around sustainability.