The recently released dietary guidelines—which were put together by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—are creating a lot of controversy.
While the Guidelines recommend eaters consume less sugar, they disappointed many sustainable agriculture and health advocates by not suggesting consumers reduce their consumption of red meat and processed meat.
Last year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)’s scientific report, which was meant to provide an evidence base for the final guidelines, suggested eating less meat as a way to improve both environmental sustainability and public health. Many organizations and groups—such as the Environmental Working Group, the Organic Consumers’ Association, and the Center for Food Safety—came together to support the inclusion of sustainability in the new guidelines, through an alliance named My Plate, My Planet.
Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, says, “Given the huge health and environmental costs of diets high in factory farmed meat, the lack of clear guidance on lowering meat consumption does a disservice to the public and our future food security. The administration has clearly put the financial interests of the meat industry over the weight of the science and the health of the American people.”
Reducing meat consumption is a key aspect of reducing climate change emissions, according to new research from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF). Christine Grillo, writing on behalf of the CLF, says, “we’re disturbed to see how the Dietary Guidelines’ message on meat consumption is obfuscated, and how this muddled, unrigorous communication supports the agenda of the very same groups pushing for ‘sound science’ in the Dietary Guidelines process.”
The justification for excluding sustainability is also less than satisfactory to Dr. David Katz, founder of the True Health Initiative, who notes that the Dietary Guidelines do include recommendations for physical activity, which is also outside the scope of dietary guidance, but closely related to chronic disease prevention.
Marion Nestle of New York University points out the failure of the guidelines to adhere to recommendations that emphasize whole foods, rather than singling out individual nutrients to increase or limit. The guidelines succeed in recommending increased fruit and vegetable consumption, but where necessary decreases in consumption are outlined, they steer clear of ruffling industry feathers by identifying individual nutrients—such as saturated fat and added sugars—to limit.
Nestle calls saturated fat a euphemism for meat and added sugar a euphemism for soda and sugar-sweetened beverages. The clarity and consistency of dietary recommendations are undermined by such attempts to avoid identification of unhealthy foods, according to Nestle.
Political influence was definitely at play in keeping sustainability out of the official guidelines. “It’s upsetting to see cycles of misinformation coming back over and over again,” says Dr. David Heber, founding director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Human Nutrition. “The public has been confused and will remain confused by these guidelines.”
Katz also says that the guidelines are “a betrayal of the diligent work of nutrition scientists, and a willful sacrifice of public health on the altar of profit for well-organized special interests.”
The silver lining, however, according to Katz, is the clarity and quality of DGAC’s original scientific report. Policymakers can look to the DGAC’s report, which upholds scientific principles over politics. But consumers will have to turn elsewhere for information on the intricate relationships between diet and ecological sustainability.
While the missing connection between diet and sustainability is disappointing, advocacy groups view explosive research interest as an opportunity for 2020. As the scientific evidence linking diet to sustainability continues to grow, groups will build stronger coalitions to push for inclusion of sustainability recommendations in the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines.
“We’re already looking toward 2020 and thinking about what research is needed, and what other work we can do to assure future dietary guidelines provide clear and evidence-based recommendations about what is best for nutrition today and tomorrow,” says Grillo.