On the afternoon of December 29, 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services quietly released the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). Makes sense to bury the news over the holidays when the recommendations are anachronistic on arrival. Alarmingly, the guidelines did not take scientists’ advice to update caps on added sugar and alcohol, or, critically, to integrate sustainability considerations when deciding what to eat. Farmers and nutritionists alike now agree that the foods that are best for human health can also be a boon to healthy soil, water, and air, yet this symbiotic approach to eating has yet to be adopted by the U.S. Government.
The impact of our diets on healthcare costs and human wellbeing has never been more clear than it is today. “The co-morbidities so often cited as heightening the risk of severe infection or death from coronavirus—such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease—are inextricably linked to unhealthy diets,” notes Dorothy Shaver, RD, Food for Climate League Board Member. Countless COVID-19 deaths in the United States are attributed to underlying causes related to obesity—an epidemic that has, prior to COVID-19, robbed too many Americans of both quality and quantity of life, and in the context of coronavirus may triple one’s likelihood of hospitalization. Similarly, we are gaining more and more evidence that diet, climate, and health are inextricably linked, with rising temperatures and unpredictable, violent weather systems causing disruption to our food supply, water and air quality, and providing fertile environments for new pathogens and infectious diseases.
The DGAs could empower Americans to take control of both their personal health and environmental sustainability through nutritious, climate-smart food behaviors. Instead, following the DGAs in their current form won’t go far enough to abate the obesity crisis and will actually exacerbate the climate crisis. If America’s dietary guidelines (even pre-update) were adopted globally, we’d need approximately 3.5 Earths to produce that amount and mix of foods, notes EAT’s recent report, “Diets for a Better Future.” We’re all about positivity and promise in 2021, but no amount of optimism can scrounge up 2.5 extra Earths.
To ensure thriving people on a thriving planet, we need a new approach. Food for Climate League suggests a radical one: the Biden administration should release new DGAs that marry our human health goals with our climate realities.
National dietary guidelines are the bedrock of what and how we eat as a nation. They should be the plates we aspire to. The North Star for living and eating well. For too long, these guidelines have been underutilized tools for addressing the climate emergency, both in and outside the U.S. By and large, G20 countries fail to leverage national dietary guidelines for the climate-stabilizing, ecosystem-regenerating, health-promoting, immune-boosting potential they harbor. From our own research and beyond, we’ve got reams of scientific proof that it’s entirely feasible to shift to diets that align optimal nutrition for all with climate-smart food production. (See: “Future 50 Foods” from Knorr and World Wildlife Fund for Nature UK, Menus of Change Principles from The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard Chan School, “Reset the Table” from Rockefeller Foundation, or the Planetary Health Diet from EAT-Lancet, to name just a few). What’s standing in the way of this better approach isn’t scientists, chefs, or even eaters—it’s leaders. The climate crisis is most fundamentally a leadership crisis. And this reality is perhaps nowhere more obvious than the U.S.’ failure to reflect nutrition and environmental science in its own dietary recommendations.
The great news is that, in a world far, far away from the closed-door decision-making rooms of HHS and USDA—where facts live free of most political filters—there appears clear consensus about what ideal eating patterns should look like. The new guidelines would start with a plant-forward approach emphasizing fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and plant-based proteins. (We’re talking minimally processed foods. Whole foods. Real foods.) Animal protein in the form of meat and cheese would take a secondary role as prized flavorings – valued, certainly, but used sparingly. Also called “flexitarian,” such an eating style would naturally be lower in calories and higher in nutrients than current American diets and would have the dual benefit of reducing both saturated fat and harmful greenhouse gas emissions from industrial livestock production. The guidelines should imbue a sense of personal purpose in choosing to eat this way. They should encourage investment in local communities—be it farmers or restaurateurs—and emphasize the immune-boosting benefits of eating foods grown in healthy soils nearby. This sense of empowerment and collective action can, in and of itself, help to alleviate many of the mental health issues we all face at this moment as well, by cultivating a sense of autonomy, belonging, and meaningful action.
New guidelines should encourage consumption of biodiverse foods to increase nutrient variety, break our dependence on monoculture crops, rebuild the nation’s soil, and create a resilient food system. Instead of a plate or pyramid schematic to illustrate proportion and outdated “food groups,” we envision an engaging mosaic to beautifully present the plethora of craveable foods that support both human and environmental health. Make the items on the chart look delicious, enticing, and accessible, and stress the flavor benefits of broadening the spectrum of foods in one’s diet. Because eating in a biodiverse way is a culinary adventure. And based on FCL’s research, it’s best to focus on the enticing flavors and textures that await us rather than the ecological benefits. Rather, we can promote this way of eating as one that will increase a sense of control over weight and health management, that will allow us to explore new food experiences, celebrate our heritages, connect with our local communities, and positively impact the wider world. “The new guidelines should consider the United States’ power to transform livelihoods globally,” said Shaver. “The U.S. is a food powerhouse from what it grows and, furthermore, to what it consumes. Getting everyone eating a wider variety of nutritious, plant-based foods will enable a multi-faceted positive impact across all elements of society, in the U.S. and far beyond. This is a missed opportunity.”
New guidelines should also embrace the wisdom of diverse cultural heritages and foodways across the U.S., and highlight how many of these have long reflected the nutritional and environmental directions suggested above. Let’s be willing to admit that a colonial diet and non-native foods are not appropriate for everyone; instead, we can find ways to blend the best of the old and new worlds in community- and planet-honoring cuisine. (See Oldways’ traditional diet pyramids, as further examples).
Rolling out the new guidelines can be fun and even generate value and new markets for a range of actors. For instance, they could be gamified to build in lower health insurance premiums or desirable gift cards for clothing, travel, groceries, or health clubs, all as incentives to change behavior.
From the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned a great deal about what’s possible when humanity bands together to combat an existential threat to our species. Imagine what could be accomplished if we had the unified resolve to admit when something isn’t working—and the willingness to boldly turn the tide on human and planetary health. Ultimately, the planet will be okay whether we’re fine or not. But the reason we must act fast is that, importantly, the opposite cannot be said.