Imagine the howling that would occur if the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued dietary guidelines that limited the recommended amount of meat intake to less than three ounces a day. The livestock industry, food companies and restaurant chains would be up in arms. The recent revisions in the USDA dietary recommendations for Americans created enough fuss. For example, the suggestion that nutrition advice take environmental considerations into account went no where, so the USDA removed it from the final 2015 recommendations.
More countries, however, are taking science and public health into consideration when they issue nutrition recommendations for their citizens. One of them is the Netherlands, a country where meat-heavy dishes are easy to find on the menu.
The Netherlands Nutrition Center, or Voedingscentrum, is not only recommending that Dutch citizens adopt more of a plant-based diet, but also that they reduce their weekly meat consumption to less than 500 grams (17.6 ounces). That is half of what the USDA suggests in its most recent dietary guidelines. Going a step further, the Dutch agency’s nutritionists recommend limiting red meat consumption to 300 grams (10.6 ounces) a week, in large part because of what it says is the livestock industry’s massive environmental impact.
And because of ongoing concerns about overfishing, Voedingscentrum has also recommended that consumers cut back their weekly seafood intake from two servings to only one a week. As one researcher told National Geographic, one serving a week is enough to counter the risks of coronary disease. That seafood serving should also be an oily fish, a diet recommendation easy to fulfill throughout the Netherlands as herring sandwiches are almost as easy to find as appeltaart and beer.
So, what should people incorporate into their menus instead of animal products? Eggs max out to only two or three a week in these guidelines. Nutritionists suggest at least one serving (135 grams, or 4.6 ounces) of legumes such as beans, kidneys or chickpeas. An occasional small handful of unsalted nuts suffices as a substitute for red meat; in fact, Voedingscentrum suggests cheap peanuts as a more sustainable option than pistachios, chestnuts, walnuts or hazelnuts. (No word on whether the peanut sauce served with French fries, a Dutch favorite, counts.)
Visitors to the agency’s site can sort out their own “plate” or “pyramid” in gauging how they can have a healthful diet, but there are some foods its nutritionists recommend to avoid completely. Those Dutch hot food vending machines, made famous by chains such as FEBO, are a no-no. Processed meats such as sausages and ham are out. The same goes for ground meat or cuts such as spare ribs or bacon. Legumes canned with too much sugar or salt are also to be avoided, and just because something is vegetarian does not mean it is necessarily healthful: Processed veggie burgers or meat substitutes are also excluded from the pyramid.
Although these new Dutch dietary guidelines emphasize buying and eating sustainably, they are also science-based and practical. While lauding the health benefits of vegetables such as kale, kohlrabi, broccoli and beets, the guidelines suggest taking seasonality into account. Canned, frozen or jarred vegetables are given the green light, as their nutritional comment is about the same as fresh options.
As for washing down those meals, the beverage companies did not get very far if they tried to lobby this Dutch government agency. Tap water, coffee or tea are it — fizzy drinks are a non starter. Occasional milk and yogurt are fine, but avoid cheese, say these nutritionists, because it scores high on the environmental impact front.
So, for citizens on this side of the pond where the USDA and its current secretary, Tom Vilsack, are too beholden to Big Food and big meat, the Dutch guidelines offer a different perspective. And considering the obesity and heart disease rate here in the U.S., taking a cue from the Netherlands would certainly not hurt as we try to wade through all the health information by which we are all constantly bombarded.
Image credits: Leon Kaye