The recently released report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) highlights, contentiously and for the first time, the benefits of sustainable dietary patterns. Recommending more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and less red and processed meat is a crucial and laudable first step.
This protects the environment, uses fewer natural resources and promotes individual health. Yet this bold recommendation and others in the report are already being met with stiff resistance from the food industry and some in Congress. It will be an uphill battle to keep them into the final dietary guidelines.
Sustainable dietary guidelines are not a new idea -- Drs. Joan Gussow and Kate Clancy, two food systems experts, first argued for them in a seminal 1986 article in Journal of Nutrition Education. Thirty years later, the interconnections between the health of our planet and the health of consumers may finally be included in our nation's top dietary advice. With a more sustainable food system, we could expect to:
• reduce the harmful environmental impact of industrial agriculture on our soil, water, and climate
• create awareness about our food's journey from farm to plate
• connect farmers and communities, localizing the food system
• promote biodiversity, ensure soil quality and conservation, and protect pollinators
• safeguard the long term security and safety of our food supply
• provide good food jobs and safe working conditions
While we applaud the plant-based diet recommendations, to fully achieve these benefits, future reports should consider not just what to eat but also how it is produced. Recommending sustainable production methods, like organic agriculture and well-managed pasture-based livestock systems, has the potential to double down on plant-based diet advice.
The report's potential to positively impact the food system is apparent, and Big Food is up in arms. Before the report was even issued, the House's agricultural appropriations bill directed the committee to only focus on "sound nutrition science and not pursue an environmental agenda." Since the Committee's report came out, meat and food industry lobbyists are doing their best to bring lawmakers over to their side and exclude sustainability.
These acts are only the latest in decades worth of industry-lead pressure to resist changes to the status quo that would likely cut profits. But sustainability should not be a dirty word. The implication that the DGAC should stick solely to nutrition science belies the fact that nutrition scientists understand that the foods we eat are intimately linked to the agricultural systems that produce them. We can no longer afford to silo scientific inquiry into distinct domains like "nutritional" and "environmental."
There is another recommendation that scares Big Food: the report's focus on food-based recommendations instead of nutrients. Calls to decrease red and processed meat or to tax sugar-sweetened beverages directly threaten industry profits. Nutrient-based recommendations, such as "choose less saturated fat," lead to diets that defy common sense and can be manipulated by industry food processors and marketing. When the food industry can isolate specific nutrients, manipulating and fortifying highly processed foods, people are led to believe they are healthy, especially through clever and omnipresent marketing.
Yet what author Michael Pollan has referred to as "edible food like substances" do not confer the same health or environmental benefits that minimally-processed whole foods do. Americans deserve a set of Dietary Guidelines that are easy to understand, based on the newest scientific evidence, and not catered to industry profits.
As the USDA and DHHS look to finalize the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015 they should keep the sustainable dietary recommendations and food-based approach, despite Big Food's pressure to the contrary. Decades of scientific evidence and countless leaders in the field support the links between our food production and consumption, and the health of our environment.
The Dietary Guidelines drive decisions about federally funded nutrition programs and, as such, the financial, environmental and public health implications are enormous. We need proactive dietary guidance today, for healthy citizens and a healthy planet tomorrow. If you agree, the recommendations deserve your comment.
Public comments will be accepted through 11:59 p.m. E.D.T. on May 8, 2015.
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