This week's new Dietary Guidelines - What they should say about red meat

We've long known America's love affair with meat has supersized impacts on the environment--from meat's intensive use of water to its enormous carbon footprint--as well as on our health.

Later this week, the Obama administration is expected to release the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For the next five years, these recommendations will guide food purchasing for the federal school lunch program as well as form the basis for federal nutrition policy. They will also help inform the dietary advice and information delivered by public health and nutrition experts to the general public.

Several years ago, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services commissioned a group of experts to lend scientific advice in preparing the new Guidelines. This past February, they released their report; the experts recommended that the eventual Guidelines encourage Americans to eat less red meat, and acknowledge the environmental impacts (on top of the health effects) of diets heavy in red meat.

At the Natural Resources Defense Council, we echo the recommendations of the experts commissioned by USDA and the HHS. That's why we've advocated for them to be included in the final guidelines. Unfortunately, despite their grounding in rigorous science, it's quite uncertain they will be so included.

We support, for example, the experts' conclusion that diets featuring less meat and more fruits and vegetables are beneficial to reducing obesity, and other diet-related chronic diseases. Specifically, panel found there is "moderate to strong evidence" that "higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake." Additionally, I blogged in October when cancer science experts from the WHO's (World Health Organization's) International Agency for Research on Cancer also found strong scientific evidence that red meat is a probable carcinogen. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines should reflect this conclusion, and recommend that Americans eat less red meat.

Second, we support the panel's finding that the nutritional health of what we eat as individuals, the long term health of our population, the security of our food supply, and the sustainability of our air, water and climate, are closely linked. Meat production takes a heavy toll on our environment and climate. And production of meat from ruminant animals--cows, sheep, and goats-- in particular is the most intensive in terms of its contribution to emissions of the greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. The panel concluded that because the U.S. population tends to eat diets high in animal protein, and relatively lighter in plant-based foods, the typical American diet has a significant environmental footprint.

Average Americans are already paying attention to the science. Recent trends in consumption in fact are in line with the recommendation to eat less red meat (our country's red meat consumption has dropped about 25% since the mid-1970's). But Americans on average still eat nearly 2 lbs of red meat per week--approaching double the European Union's recommended amount of no more than about one pound of cooked red meat per week.

With its release of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this week, it's time for Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion to do the responsible thing. That means acknowledging that shifting to a diet with less red meat in favor of more vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods will not only promote better health, it will also help reduce climate change pollution. There's a clear win-win.

This blog was co-authored by Sujatha Jahagirdar, policy specialist in NRDC's Food and Agriculture program.




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