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Dietary Guidelines Consider Planet's Health

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Energy & Environment
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“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” These seven words are author and sustainable food advocate Michael Pollan’s sage advice on how to eat a diet that is healthy for both people and the planet. And now it appears the U.S. government is poised to adopt similar nutritional recommendations.

Last week, the nation’s top nutrition panel, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, released its latest report -- which argued for a “sustainable diet” high in plant-based foods and lower in calories and animal-based foods. The findings, which serve to provide the scientific basis for the next version of the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines (think the old food pyramid and now, MyPlate), urge Americans to consider the environmental impacts of their diets, saying that food that is more environmentally responsible is usually healthier for people.

This is the first time the advisory committee has incorporated the environmental impact of food production and consumption in its report, which is published every five years.

Just as Pollan suggests, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends favoring plants and plant-based foods in your diet – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds – and cutting back on red and processed meats. This type of diet, the panel says, has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and uses fewer resources and produces fewer carbon emissions than the standard meat-heavy American diet.

While the committee is careful to point out that no one food group needs to be completely eliminated from the American diet, the beef industry still felt singled out by the new dietary recommendations, saying the group ignores “a large body of strong and consistent evidence supporting lean beef’s role in healthy diets.”

Back in December, Congress approved language expressing “concern” that the committee was “considering issues outside of the nutritional focus of the panel” – namely, the environmental impact of food, the Washington Post reported.

But even though the report aims to evaluate the environmental footprint of our diet, the committee suggests Americans eat more seafood to support healthy heart and brain function. How exactly is arguing for the increased consumption of this dwindling resource sustainable? The report says that additional sustainable aquaculture will be instrumental to meeting the growing demand for seafood; but whether you are in favor of more fish farms or sustainable capture fisheries (wild-caught fish) – or a combination of both – the fishing industry has a long way to go before Americans can begin to serve more fish at mealtime.

Regardless of the panel’s somewhat questionable advice on seafood consumption, incorporating sustainability into the national nutrition advice is significant: The government’s Dietary Guidelines influence the development of school lunch menus and national food labels. It will be interesting to see if the Department of Health and Human Services and the Agriculture Department choose to ignore the panel’s more controversial recommendations, but instances of this are uncommon, former panel members told the Washington Post.

The environmental impacts of food has been part of nutrition policy for the past decade in many other countries, the report says, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and Brazil. And, the study says, environmentally responsible food will ultimately protect our food supply in the long run.

“Access to sufficient, nutritious and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population,” the report says. “A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations.”

Image credit: Flickr/Martin Cathrae

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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