Dietary Guidance: Sustainability or Stupidity?

05/27/2015 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

As a writer, I recognize the need to be blunt at times to deliver a message effectively. I don't shy away from that requirement, but I do try to avoid insult. For one thing, you cannot communicate effectively with someone you alienate. For another, I have far too many doubts about what I think I know to disparage views with which I disagree for only that reason. And finally, I appreciate opinions other than my own, because they are the best hope of learning something. We never learn much by reaffirming the opinions we already own. Opportunities for new understanding reside largely in the realm of opinions we have yet to consider fairly. I appreciate that, and try to conduct myself accordingly.

That said, however, some truths really are self-evident and don't warrant debate, discord or data gathering. Though I run a clinical research lab as my day job, I have long maintained that were my foot to catch on fire, I would not need a randomized controlled trial to fetch a pail of water. When, in such circumstances of self-evident truth, we carry on as if we need more data, or have cause for debate - it is probably just dissimulation, an excuse for dithering in the service of some ulterior motive.

That is clearly the case now, as the inclusion of sustainability as a principle of national dietary guidance is contested. I will return to the literal case momentarily, but let's consider parabolic scenarios first.

Imagine one group of people living in a village next to a beautiful, bountiful, never-failing stream of pure water. We may comfortably accept that this clan makes use of that water supply, and does not think much about alternatives to it, or contingency plans should it fail them. It has never failed them, and they have had no cause to worry that it might.

But now, a small delegation from that clan is commissioned to go explore across the sea, for whatever reason. They set off in a long boat with a fixed supply of water carried in gourds, uncertain when or where they will find more. The notion that this group, aware of the limitation of a vital resource, would not ration rationally is nearly absurd, and would likely prove suicidal. They would need to monitor water use carefully, and if their supply were half gone before they found an opportunity to replenish, it would be time to turn back home or risk dying of thirst.

These hypotheticals demonstrate how the very same people could think quite differently about sustainability under different circumstances. To argue that those in the boat should not bother about water sustainability because no one in the home village had done so would make no sense. Once the potential for a shortage is on display, sustainability planning is the unavoidably prudent response.

This is exactly the case with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Inattention to sustainability by prior Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees could be justified by blissful ignorance to the prospect of shortages. But once that threat is on display for all to see, it obligates our attention.

There are, nonetheless, arguments against exactly that attention- and they come in two flavors. The first is transparently selfish, and rather flagrantly silly. When, for instance, the Royal Order of Pepperoni Peddlers argues that advice to eat less meat is misguided, we don't need to consult Stephen Hawking to figure out what's going on. They have put personal profit ahead of public well being. We can forgive them the motivation, certainly; they've got bills to pay just like the rest of us. But we are well advised just the same to avoid signing up for the 'pepperoni-du-jour' delivery service.

The other variety of opposition is more nuanced, and thus more challenging. It tends to take the form of redirection. So, for instance, the argument abounds that there is considerable food waste -- as indeed there is. The argument continues that we should fix the waste, rather than address sustainability at the underlying sources.

We should, of course, address food waste, which is a huge, global problem; although it's not clear we have the organizational wherewithal to do so effectively. But even if we had, it would make no sense to address waste and ignore sustainability otherwise. Let's return to our parabolic mariners, and imagine that their water gourds all leak. Obviously, if they could, they should plug the leaks. But they should monitor and ration their water supply even so.

We, the people, in our millions and billions, are the clan in my parable. Our planet is the village. Our stream, alas, is a sputtering trickle. The skies are clear, and the forecast shows no rain any time soon. You and I are thirsty. More importantly, perhaps, our children live here, too, and they are also thirsty. We have cause to hope that a generation from now, our children's children will live here- and when they do, they will also get thirsty.

With that in mind, then, I apologize if my bluntness on this topic offends, but I really see no alternative to it. We do not have a choice between sensible dietary guidelines that include, or exclude sustainability. We only really have a choice between sensible guidelines that address sustainability, and senseless guidelines that dismiss the obvious. We only really have a choice between protecting our kids' food and water, and consuming it all. We only really have a choice between addressing a clear and present danger, and the shortsighted stupidity of ignoring it.

In other words, we don't really have any choice at all.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity