Dietary Guidelines Are Harming Human Health and the Environment

Researchers were "shocked" at how bad governments are at promoting health.

girl points at food graph
A girl points at a picture of major food groups in this illustration from 1949.

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

Dietary guidelines are published every few years by governments that want to help their citizens make healthier food choices. These guidelines influence menus designed for schools, hospitals, care homes, and prisons, and affect the ingredient lists on prepared foods. They're taught to children and used as a reference when retraining eating habits. They're a great idea in theory, but unfortunately do not work so well in real life.

The problem is that, aside from the corruption and conflicted interests on the advisory panels creating these guidelines, they simply do not go far enough. Sure, some people might eat a few more fruits and vegetables as a result of their country's latest food pyramid, pagoda, wheel, plate, or whatever shape it takes, but there's a huge disconnect between the dietary advice a government gives and whatever attempts it's making to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health.

In other words, millions of lives could be saved and the climate crisis partially averted if governments aligned guidelines with health and environmental targets that they've already said they want to meet. 

A new study published in the British Medical Journal looked at all available dietary guidelines, from 85 countries in every region of the world. In every single one, people were eating more red meat and processed foods than recommended by their national dietary guidelines and, in all but a few countries, too few fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains. 

The researchers found, however, that even if people did follow their national guidelines, "only two countries had dietary guidelines in line with health, climate and pollution targets set by governments." These two countries were Indonesia and Sierra Leone, and theirs alone met the six targets (one health, five environmental) against which all guidelines were measured. From the Guardian:

"The health target is to cut early deaths from non-infectious diseases by a third, while the environment targets related to the 2C limit in global heating set by the Paris deal, the destruction of wild areas, freshwater use and nitrogen and phosphate pollution from farming."

Lead study author, Marco Springmann, a professor at Oxford University, said, "Countries are surprisingly bad in helping their populations to eat what they say is a good diet. It was really shocking."

What's to be done? 

The researchers would like to see dietary guidelines align with those of the 2019 EAT-Lancet study that drew up a framework for a planet-friendly diet that is said to be the only way to feed 10 billion people without causing catastrophic damage to the planet. Treehugger wrote last year that it's based loosely on the Mediterranean diet, but with fewer eggs, meat, and fish, and almost no sugar. "It is not vegan because, as co-author Prof. Walter Willett told BBC, it was unclear whether eliminating meat was the healthiest option; however, 'if we were just minimizing greenhouse gases we'd say everyone be vegan.'"

If developed countries, in particular, followed the EAT-Lancet guidelines, they'd see the following shifts in public health and environmental wellbeing: 

"In the UK, following the planetary health diet would cut food-related emissions by 70% and diet-related deaths by 104,000 every year, compared with people’s current diets. In the US ... emissions would fall 74% and deaths by 585,000. The emissions cut would be even greater in Australia – 86% – with a 31,000 fall in deaths." (via the Guardian)

Not all countries can afford to eat as well as the EAT-Lancet study recommends, so there would have to be a push toward improved food production and expanded food offerings in certain regions of the world. But these aren't the places whose diets are harming the planet as much as developing nations' are, which is why cutting back on meat and dairy is so crucial.

Reworking dietary guidelines to accommodate both health and climate plays a crucial role in fighting the climate crisis. It's a challenge, yes, but it's also a fairly straightforward solution with a clear framework that only needs to be implemented. Compared to some of the climate-related challenges governments face, this is a relatively easy fix – but it would take unprecedented determination to push it through.