Does Sustainability Fit into the Dietary Guidelines?

by Buki Owoputi

Sustainability in the food system is not a new topic, yet the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is choosing to finally address the issue full force. Although the DGAC’s report is just a recommendation, the report may influence the new dietary guidelines that are set to come out later this year.

The purpose of the Dietary Guidelines is to “encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet-one that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent disease.” The DGAC recommendations state that it is addressing sustainability to “have alignments and consistency in dietary guidance that promotes health and sustainability.” As the concern for environmental preservation grows, many countries (such as Australia) have addressed this issue by including sustainability in their dietary guidelines. The U.S. has finally decided to get on board and follow the pack.

So what exactly is sustainable diet? The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) describes it as “…with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

In other words, sustainable diets focus on preserving the environment and reduce the impact of food production on the planet. While this all sounds wonderful, the question becomes whether the purpose of the dietary guidelines should be to protect the environment or just strictly provide a healthy eating guideline for Americans.

In order to address sustainability, the DGAC has discussed plant-based diets higher in foods such as fruits, vegetables, plant proteins, and whole grains. This also includes decreasing meat consumption. The DGAC also discusses consuming seafood that is wild caught, however it addresses that both farm-raised and wild caught are needed to meet the consumer demand for seafood in the U.S. The DGAC states that it plans to determine if sustainable diets are affordable and accessible, as well as determining the economic impacts of a sustainable diet.

To no surprise, those in the meat industry oppose the committee’s recommendations. For example, Tiffany Ringer of JBS Five Rivers Cattle Feeding writes, “I have read news reports about the recommendations made by the dietary guidelines and I am very concerned. Meat is a part of my family’s diet and always has been because my family knows that it helps our children grow and develop…It seems like this committee is out of touch with everyday Americans.”

However, the DGAC recommendations clearly state that no food group should be eliminated. The focus seems to be increasing fruits and vegetables in the diet.  So far, the feedback from the public has been mostly positive. Many people are happy that the U.S. may finally include sustainability into its recommendations for a healthy diet. For example, Joseph Hayes states, “I absolutely agree that we need to transition to a sustainable, plant based diet. The present standard American diet is unhealthy, extremely cruel to the animals, destructive to the environment, and a terrible waste of resources, especially water…I have been a vegan for 16 years and am in robust health. I love eating exclusively vegan and hope the Dietary guidelines remain strongly in favor of a plant based diet for good health and sustainability.”

There seems to be 2 different arguments that have arisen on the topic of sustainable diets, and it is important to dissect and address both issues separately. The first issue is whether the dietary guidelines should be made with the goal of preserving the environment. Should healthy eating and environmental health be linked together? Almost no one would argue that production of meats and other animal foods increases the carbon emissions and is worse for environmental pollution than producing plant-based foods. But should we be willing to make nutrition and health decisions based on the environment? Would you be willing to adopt a vegan diet to reduce pollution on the environment, even if it was not the best diet nutritionally, preferentially, or culturally appropriate for you? Is it selfish to choose your own wants and needs over those of the environment? While is it easy to say that we all want to do everything we can to limit the impact we have on the environment, is it worth it the sacrifice? Lucky for us, it may be possible to have the best of both worlds. Instead of choosing one extreme or the other, simply limiting animal products may provide a benefit for Americans.

This leads to the second issue that needs of whether adopting a sustainable diet will actually lead to healthier Americans. Many people are arguing that a sustainable diet is a healthier diet and would lead to a decrease in chronic diseases. For example, a study of vegan and vegetarian diets by Tantamango-Bartley et al. found that vegan and vegetarian diets seem to offer some protection against certain types of cancers. Depending on the way the guidelines are stated, this expected decrease in incidence of chronic diseases may not happen. People may choose to replace their meat consumption with foods such as refined grains or animal-based products such as cheese or milk (which are not only still bad for the environment, but may also be linked to obesity). It is difficult enough to get people to follow the existing guidelines, talk less of increasing their already low consumption of fruits and vegetables!

The average American consumes about 2,534 calories, which is more than the recommended 2,000. However, it is important to note this study found that even if people lowered their intake to 2,000 calories, and decreased their meat consumption, the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions still may not be significant. While a decrease in calorie intake and meat consumption might decrease risk of chronic disease and obesity, it might not help the environment in a significant way. These are all issues that should be researched in more depth before any formal guidelines are made.

The purpose of the dietary guidelines should not be to preserve the environment, only to provide recommendations for a healthy diet. The Dietary Guidelines were never created with the intent to decrease our carbon footprints. With that being said, adopting a sustainable diet could help decrease the prevalence of obesity and ultimately lower rates of chronic diseases. The focus should be on increasing fresh fruits and vegetables, although animal-products can be part of a healthy diet. Framing the new guidelines in a way that promotes healthy eating instead of preservation of the environment might help reduce push-back from those who oppose including sustainable diets in the dietary guidelines. Helping the environment would just be a plus to enjoying better health!

Buki Owoputi is a first year FPAN and MPH-Epi/Bio student. In her spare time she likes to invent new recipes and read random articles on Wikipedia.

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