Advisory Committee Urges Americans to Adopt a Sustainable Diet

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Latest recommendations urge Americans to eat less meat.

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A federal advisory panel tasked with recommending dietary guidelines believes that Americans should consume less meat to promote healthy and environmentally responsible eating.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of independent experts who supply the government with scientific evidence related to diet, nutrition, and health, has decided to consider sustainability for the first time when recommending dietary guidelines. The committee’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Report, which could shape federal nutrition policy for the next five years, defines a “sustainable diet” as one that provides “food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.”

According to the committee’s 2015 report, global food production is a significant drain on natural resources like land, water, and energy, and is responsible for nearly one-third of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. The committee studied Mediterranean-style and vegetarian eating patterns, and concluded that a diet lower in animal-based foods would be healthier and more environmentally sustainable than the current average U.S. diet.

The committee has proposed three healthy and sustainable diet patterns: a vegetarian style, a Mediterranean style, and a healthy U.S. style that is similar to current consumption patterns. All three dietary patterns are higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods relative to the current average U.S. diet. Specifically, the committee recommends that people eat less red and processed meat, and more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts. From a nutritional perspective, the high levels of saturated fat in meat increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to the health risks, high meat consumption requires more land use and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 100 non-governmental advocacy groups and academics have expressed their support for the sustainable diet recommendations in an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. The letter encourages the secretaries to incorporate the sustainability recommendations into the 2015 version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are jointly released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) every five years.

However, the committee’s recommendations have drawn criticism from the meat industry and a number of legislators. Industry groups claim the committee has exceeded its authority and expertise by considering sustainability in its report. Over 70 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have echoed this concern in a letter urging the secretaries to ensure that the committee “stay[s] focused on nutritional recommendations and not the wider policy realm of sustainability.” A similar letter, signed by 30 members of the U.S. Senate, described the committee’s report as “confusing” because it encourages people to eat less red meat generally, while ignoring scientific evidence showing the importance of lean red meat in a healthy diet.

Secretary Vilsack agrees that, while the issue of sustainable diets is an “appropriate” debate, it falls outside the scope of the agency’s authority to formulate dietary guidelines. However, he has not dismissed the possibility that the recommendations may be adopted, because the government is still in the process of gathering public comments.

All federal dietary guidance to the public must be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This means the government’s decision to adopt the committee’s recommendations will impact the design and implementation of federal nutrition policy, health education, and food assistance programs for the next five years.

The movement to incorporate sustainability concerns into dietary patterns is not new and has been recognized by international organizations such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization since 2010. Nordic countries began researching sustainable dietary choices in the late 1990s, and have emphasized the environmental impact of eating patterns in nutrition guidance to the public. Other government-appointed advisory bodies in Europe that serve functions similar to the U.S. committee, including the Health Council of the Netherlands and the German Council for Sustainable Development, have issued advisory reports on sustainable eating and developed consumer shopping guides.

HHS and the USDA are seeking public comments on the committee’s Advisory Report. The comment period, which had been scheduled to end on April 8, has been extended to May 8 to give the public additional time to comment on the committee’s report.