US Dietary Guidelines: Historic Battle for People and Planet

05/08/2015 10:52 am ET | Updated May 08, 2016

The broad public support for sustainability in the scientific recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been described as 'unprecedented' according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Thus far 22,000 public comments have been registered -- almost 20 times that submitted the last time the guidelines were revised in 2010 (1,200). Every 5 years the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are redrafted by the USDA and HHS, which are jointly responsible for writing and publishing the final 2015 guidelines. Never before have the dietary guidelines garnered so much public attention, and for good reason.

For the first time ever, the advisory committee tasked with updating the scientific evidence behind the Dietary Guidelines has made the recommendation that 'health, dietary guidance, and the environment' be linked, based on their finding that in order to ensure sufficient access to nutritious, safe food in the future for Americans, it is necessary to move towards more sustainable diets that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources today.

Crucially, they also found that for the average American, there is a large overlap between the diets that were found to be healthy, and diets that were found to be more sustainable.

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee:

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 ... in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use.

A diet that is more environmentally sustainable than the average U.S. diet can be achieved... through a variety of dietary patterns.

What's on our plates?

Given that the average American overloads on protein consuming twice the protein than his or her body can actually use, and some 80 percent of this is from animal origin, the recommendation to cut back on animal-foods for both health and environmental purposes, is by no means a radical suggestion, and is neatly summed up by Michael Pollan's famous aphorism -- "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

There is also little doubting the large environmental "food-print" of the meat-heavy American diet which, were it to be adopted worldwide would require 320 percent more animal protein to be produced, and would need twice the current global area of cropland to support it (Sutton et al, 2013; Kastner et al, 2012). Recent research has also highlighted the urgency of shifting global diets, where if current dietary trends continue, producing food alone could push the world across the critical climate threshold of 2˚C as well as other important environmental thresholds (Bajelji et al, 2014; Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2010).

Given this outlook, it's hard to see what's not to like about promoting diets that are better for our health, better for the planet and ensure access to safe and healthy food for future generations of Americans. And it seems as though the public agrees. Over 200,000 Americans have now signed one of several petitions in favor of including sustainability in the guidelines. This conforms with evidence suggesting broader public support, with one nationally representative poll, indicating that more than half of Americans (53 percent) agree that environmental impacts of diets should be included in the guidelines, while less than a quarter oppose (22 percent).

This is further reflected in the extraordinary joint show of support from civil society groups, where for the first time ever, over 150 organizations and leaders working in disparate realms of the health, food and environment have coming together to publish a joint-statement to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health, supporting the science advisory recommendations under the banner of My Plate My Planet, Food for a Sustainable Nation.

The joint-statement was supported by a wide variety of environmental groups like The Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, alongside public health and academic leaders such as Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Yale Sustainable Food Program, Marion Nestle, Dean Ornish and thought leaders such as James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron, John Robbins, Eric Schlosser and Laurie David.

What's on the table?

What has caused such a stir is that it is widely agreed that the scientific committee's recommendations represent the opportunity to take a seismic leap forward in US food policymaking, informing all federal food, nutrition or health programs and affecting $16 billion dollars in spending and 5.5 billion lunches in the Federal School Lunch Program alone.

Incorporating the growing scientific understanding of fundamental connections between human and planetary health into the US Dietary Guidelines would also be globally precedent setting and position the United States as a leader in evidence-based, joined-up, food-policy.

In contrast, to ignore this new information in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines would be by default, eating away at the quality of our future environment and our future diets. Dr. Katz, founder of Yale University's Prevention Research Center puts it best:

If, in an age when we know that food and water shortages are clear and present dangers, we choose to ignore them in our dietary guidelines, then these are not dietary guidelines for "Americans," as they claim to be. They are, instead, dietary guidelines for "the current generation of American adults," and at the obvious expense of all subsequent generations of American (and planetary) adults -- including, of course, our children.

In doing so, he highlights what should be the core question at the heart of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines:

Who are these guidelines really for?

Should dietary guidelines prioritize the right of all Americans to have access to nutritious, affordable and sustainable food? Or should they prioritize increasing demand for the industry groups with the most pester power?

On the one hand there is the historic and powerful display of public support for the scientific recommendations on sustainability. On the other the agencies are currently under an intense onslaught of industry pressure to ignore the sustainability recommendations.

The two government agencies that jointly publish the dietary guidelines (USDA and HHS) are under no legal obligation to heed the advice of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has already bowed to industry pressure and gone on the record against including sustainability in the dietary guidelines. However crucially, Burwell whose department is leading the guidelines drafting for 2015 has been silent.

However they decide to answer question -- millions of Americans are watching, eager to find out, whose side are they on?

More information on sustainability in the dietary guidelines go to