U.S. dietary guidelines may include environmental concerns for the first time

The official U.S. Dietary Guidelines are used to determine a range of public health policies, like school lunches.
CC BY 2.0 A public school lunch in Washington, DC. The official U.S. Dietary Guidelines are used to determine a range of public health policies, like school lunches. DC Central Kitchen.

For the first time, the governmental guidelines for how Americans should eat may include environmental considerations. The U.S.’s top nutritional panel has recommended that Americans eat less meat, both for health reasons and to help protect the planet.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a panel of nutrition experts, who are tasked with making recommendations for how Americans should eat. These guidelines are scheduled to be updated every five years, and although in the past have been delayed, the committee published its report for 2015 for public comment last week. The official dietary guidelines are expected to be published by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services in the fall of this year.

The document, which is several hundred pages long, reviews the most current diet science. The report finds that “a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” The report says Americans could successfully eat fewer animal products in a number of different ways, such as following a healthy Mediterranean diet or a vegetarian diet. Red meat and heavily processed meats (think dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets) in particular should be consumed rarely.

In addition to recommending less meat, the report concludes that Americans should be encouraged to eat low levels of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and low levels of refined grains. While many Americans may not follow the governmental guidelines, they do play a significant role in food-related policies around the country, such as school lunches and other nutritional programs.

Although the report does not suggest that all Americans should become vegan, the meat industry disagrees with the recommendations. Barry Carpenter, the CEO of the North American Meat Institute, said the committee's “foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise” in a statement.

Yet there is plenty of evidence showing that current meat and diary production practices, particularly producing beef, are tremendously harmful to the environment. Large-scale animal agriculture has been implicated in unsustainable water use, land use, and has contributed to water and air pollution. Last year, a UN report found that cutting consumption of diary and meat could lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only does the report recommend that people eat fewer animal products, it also advises that more be done to educate people about the environmental impact of their food. “Consumer friendly information that facilitates understanding the environmental impact of different foods should be considered for inclusion in food and menu labeling initiatives.” Hopefully these recommendations will be taken to heart.

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