What we eat matters.
It matters nutritionally, of course. But food has other health impacts and dimensions as well. Food forges connection, and builds community.
What we eat--and how it's produced--profoundly affects our planet too. More than any sector of human activity, food production has shaped and changed our landscape, its enormous 'foodprint' impacting the quality and health of our soil, our air, and our water.
Every five years, the feds publish updated advice on what Americans should eat (think of the food pyramid). These dietary guidelines are based on recommendations from a panel of expert scientists, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, or DGAC. These experts issued their latest recommendations in mid-February. The reports reflects the common sense idea that our 'foodprint' matters; that we as a nation ought to be making food choices for environmental as well as personal health reasons.
For the first time, the DGAC's recommendations explicitly highlight the intersection between how diets nourish us as individuals and the impact of our collective diet on the health of our environment--in other words, on our planet's ability to continue to provide us with the food we need to stay healthy for generations to come. Specifically, the DGAC's report [Executive Summary, Line 257] says:
"The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.
Of all the foods we eat, meat--especially red meat--tends to be the most resource-intensive, therefore having the biggest environmental impact. So by cutting back on red meat consumption by just a little, we can have an outsized, positive impact on our health and our environment, too. NRDC estimates that if each us skipped just a single quarter-pound serving of beef a week, then nationwide we'd have pollution-cutting power of converting 4 to 6 million cars into zero-emission vehicles!
The DGAC is on exactly the right track with their recommendations, but pushback from the meat industry and their friends in Congress has been loud. Predictably, they have tried to undercut the science behind the DGAC's recommendations. Just last month, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Wall Street Journal that he feels bound to make sure that the government's dietary advice to the nation only addresses individual nutrition, and not issues of sustainability.
As a physician, I think it's critical that doctors, nurses, nutritionists and other health professionals in particular speak up to change Secretary Vilsack's mind. The USDA really needs to hear from all of us.
NRDC has voiced our support for a more common sense approach to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Along with dozens of other consumer, health and public interest groups, we've urged these agencies to listen to their science advisors when finalizing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
If you agree that science, public health <i">and not the meat industry, should drive the government's 2015 Dietary Guidelines for America, submit your own comments here, by the extended May 8th deadline. A sample comment letter is as follows:
Sample comments to the USDA, HHS
As a nurse / dietitian / mother / concerned consumer, I write to urge you to embrace the science-based advice of your expert advisors on the DGAC, and incorporate the health and sustainability of the sustainability into the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
As the DGAC points out, this would benefits not only nutritional health, but the broader health of the environment we rely upon to nourish us and to supply our food for generations to come. It's important not only for food security, but also for national security.
"Everyone has a role in the movement to make America healthy. By working together through policies, programs, and partnerships, we can improve the health of the current generation and take responsibility for giving future generations a better chance to lead healthy and productive lives." That's what the s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say.
If the 2015 Guidelines fail to consider the impacts of food production on the health of the planet and its sustained capacity to provide nutritious and safe food for future generations, they will fall short of this goal.
After two years of science review and deliberation, your experts determined that there is a strong body of scientific evidence indicating a diet with less meat and more plant-based foods is better for our health and the health of the planet:
"The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal- based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet." [Executive Summary of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, February 2015, line 257]
Americans rely on USDA and HHS to base their advice on the science, not on politics or the influence of meat industry lobbyists. Abundant science now illustrates the synergies between healthy dietary choices and a sustainable food system. We therefore urge you to follow the common sense advice of your scientific experts in setting your dietary health advice to Americans.