Most Americans may be blissfully unaware that their federal government spends millions of dollars every 5 years to come up with its “Dietary guidelines for America.”
The process began in 1977 when a Senate Select Committee led by George McGovern issued recommendations summarized as follows:
These recommendations were not supported by the science at the time, and were hotly debated, but led to dramatic changes in the diet of Americans who were taught that anything with low fat and low cholesterol levels was “heart-healthy.”
Some mistakes in the original guidelines have been corrected over time (yay! Now we can eat egg yolks and avocados), but as late as 2010, major recommendations of the committee were not supported by scientific evidence (as I have pointed out here and here).
There is now a congressional mandate for the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to convene a committee of experts every 5 years to review the current guidelines and the scientific evidence on nutrition and make new “Dietary guidelines for Americans (DGA).”
This DGA committee (DGAC) issued its draft report earlier this year and it has led to considerable controversy.
A major criticism has been its recommendations to cut down on meat consumption. An editorial in the BMJ by Nina Teicholz suggested that the committee members had not appropriately considered recent evidence suggesting that saturated fat had been exonerated as a cause of obesity or heart disease and that low carb diets may be more beneficial in preventing obesity and diabetes than low fat diets. This editorial suggested that many of the DGAC members were biased toward keeping old dietary recommendations, and demanded an independent review of the recommendations by another scientific committee.
The pushback from various interest groups and some scientists has, in fact, been so intense, that the HHS and Agriculture secretaries were grilled on the science behind many of their recommendations by a House committee last week.
Sustainability of Dietary Recommendations
The most controversial portions of the DGAC recommendations were a sustainability measure that suggested Americans consider the environment when deciding which foods to eat, and a soda tax to promote the reduction of added sugar consumption (my thoughts on soda tax are here).
The Obama administration indicated, during the House interrogations, that neither of these recommendations would be in the final guidelines.
The original DGAC report highlighted the connection between environmental impact and healthy eating, stating: “access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the US,” and “a sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations.”
In a statement posted Tuesday on the USDA website, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwel, announced that the guidelines will not include recommendations about how to choose foods with the lightest impact on the planet. The dietary guidelines, they wrote, are not “the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation.”
Whereas the original report thrilled environmentalists, it enraged the beef and livestock industry in the US, and clearly the backlash from this industry influenced the final decision.
This has been portrayed as an example of politics trumping science, but I believe that, currently, all of food policy is being influenced by politics.
It is way beyond my capability to assess the science behind issues of sustainability, but environmentalists believe we can substantially lessen the negative impact of food production on the planet by consuming less meat.
David Wallinga, MD of the NDRC has written
by cutting back on red meat consumption by just a little, we can have an outsized, positive impact on our health and our environment, too. NRDC estimates that if each of us skipped just a single quarter-pound serving of beef a week, then nationwide we’d have pollution-cutting power of converting 4 to 6 million cars into zero-emission vehicles!
For an in-depth discussion of the environmental impact of meat consumption over veggie consumption, check out this excellently referenced article at thinkprogress.org:
Should Sustainability Be A Consideration In National Dietary Guidelines
I have to say that I don’t incorporate issues of sustainability into my own dietary choices. If I want a grass-fed beef burger from Winslow’s Home or a Smoked Beef Brisket plate from Salt and Smoke, I just order it and let the planet be damned.
Even after reading all the arguments of the environmentalists, I’m going to eat a grass-fed sirloin steak once every couple of weeks if the mood strikes me.
I will be making dietary choices based on what is good for me, and I see no need to restrict red meat or dairy consumption. I don’t think the science has proven that this is deleterious to my health.
This is probably selfish. In most other respects I do what I can to help the planet. I even drive a Camry hybrid.
But somehow the concept of me eating one less burger per week, while billions of people in developed countries are ramping up their beef and pork consumption, seems futile.
Consequently, I think it was appropriate for the sustainability issues to be taken out of the DGA report.
Let’s try to tell people what diet is best for their health, and let them make their own moral decisions on how to save the planet or be kind to animals.
National Food Policy
Perhaps we need, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, a “National Food Policy” (NFP).
It was, after all, writes Pollan, the government that fostered the current system:
“In an effort to combat a spike in food prices, the Nixon Administration abandoned supply controls and used the policy tools at its disposal to boost farm production by subsidizing, and encouraging, the industrialization and consolidation of commodity agriculture. This “productivist paradigm” — heavily dependent on fossil fuel inputs and a small number of crops grown in monoculture — succeeded in producing an abundance of cheap calories. But this was achieved at a price to the health of the population, the environment and rural economy that is no longer sustainable….
these various issues are currently addressed through piecemeal and often contradictory approaches, whereas they are interlocking problems that can best be addressed through a unified and coordinated policy focused on their common denominator: the food system.
A NFP would, as Pollan terms it, “resolarize” the production system:
Develop a roadmap to “re-solarize” the production system. There are many moving parts to this agenda, but this core idea unifies most of them: To the extent that we wean American agriculture from its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on one of contemporary sunshine captured through photosynthesis, we can solve several problems at once, including improving the American diet and mitigating climate change. The problem, in a nutshell, is that we grow too much of our food in vast monocultures, which depend on applications of fossil fuel fertilizer, fossil fuel pesticides, and energy-intensive processing and transport. These monocultures produce more calories per farmer, yet they survive only as long as fossil energies are available and cheap, and only because society is willing to let those farmers externalize heavy environmental, health, and socioeconomic costs. They also lead directly to a fast-food diet based on the building blocks of commodity corn (for cheap sweeteners and meat) and commodity soy (for cheap oil and meat). The more diversified a farm production system is, the more it relies on free contemporary sunlight rather than fossil fuels and fertilizers. A more diversified agriculture would at the same time help diversify the American diet and sequester significant amounts of carbon in the soil. Relocalizing the food system contributes to this objective. This will reduce energy consumption and improve food safety and security, while at the same time improving the quality of calories produced, since the less food is processed for national distribution the fresher and more nutritious it is.
This seems like a great approach, and I hope it comes soon.