The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has made some strong recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in its latest report.
The committee meets once every five years to provide the latest scientific research and data on diet, health and nutrition to help inform the federal government. The information is provided to assist the government in making science-backed decisions on national nutritional policy, which affects things such as children’s school lunches. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines provided by the HHS and USDA are due later this year.
The work of the committee was based on two realities facing Americans today. As of 2012, about 117 million American adults have one or more chronic diseases, and about 155 million Americans ages 20 and older are overweight or obese, as of 2013. The committee draws a connection, not surprisingly, between these facts and an overconsumption of calories, lack of physical activity and bad dietary patterns.
The most striking, and encouraging, aspect of the report was its focus on the sustainability aspect of our consumption patterns and food systems.
“The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss,” according to the report. The committee’s recommendations focused more on changing individual dietary habits rather than integrating sustainable agricultural methods.
The goal here is to reduce production of resource-intensive foods by changing the demand from a population-level. By switching to a more sustainable diet, we’re able to cause a shift in what’s produced to meet demand. Consider that the production of one pound of grain-fed beef can take 1,800 gallons of water, and you’ll get an idea of the issue we face going forward.
From the report: “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”
The report points to a few diets we could look into adopting: Healthy U.S. Pattern, Mediterranean Pattern and the Vegetarian Pattern. It also mentions the Life Well 2020 Diet developed by the European Commission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent.
These recommendations to reduce consumption of resource-consuming meat are getting pushback from the meat industry. The industry is requesting an extension of the comment period for the guidelines from 45 to 120 days.
Committee members aimed to conduct their mission as scientists – providing the most sound, objective, nonpartisan information through research to recommend what’s best for the people of the nation and the planet.
Friends of the Earth, as part of a coalition of 49 groups, wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, urging them to implement the sustainable guidelines and stand strong in the face of what will surely be powerful opposition and pressure.
The letter states: “Abundant science now illustrates the synergies between healthy dietary choices and a sustainable food system both of which, in turn, impact public health. Despite this fact, Congress is pressuring the scientific experts to exclude considerations for sustainability from their final report… To do so would be irresponsible… Now more than ever, it is important for our government to encourage Americans to consider the methods by which food is produced.”
Make no mistake: This report is a landmark, and a far cry from previous recommendations, largely due to the extreme nature of the health epidemic in this country.