Advisory panel eyes shift to more sustainable diet in U.S.

‘Sustainability has to be core to dietary guidelines’

Spicy cashew-nut salad. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.
Can federal guidelines help Americans choose a healthier diet?

Staff Report

FRISCO — Guided by an advisory panel, federal health experts last week set the stage to nudge American consumers toward a more sustainable diet that’s higher in plant-based foods and lighter on animal-based foods.

In the long-term, the changes would improve individual health and result in a smaller environmental footprint, according to panel, which submitted its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new scientific report spelled out the fundamental realities of diet and health. About half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese, patterns that have persisted for more than 20 years.

Gradually shifting consumption patterns and eating habits would lead to huge improvements in public health, but there are big challenges, the advisory committee said:

“For this approach to work, it will be essential that the food environments in communities available to the U.S. population, particularly to low-income individuals, facilitate access to healthy and affordable food choices that respect their cultural preferences. Similarly, food and calorie label education should be designed to be understood by audiences with low health literacy, some of which may have additional English language fluency limitations.”

A broad coalition of 49 health, environment and animal-welfare groups urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to embrace the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s sustainability recommendations.

In a letter, the groups asked Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Burwell “to show a strong commitment to keeping Americans, and our shared environment, healthier by developing clear dietary recommendations on the need for reduced consumption of animal products and more plant-based foods.”

Signatories of the letter include Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Friends of the Earth, Healthy Food Action, Center for Biological Diversity, American Public Health Association, Yale University Prevention Research Center and Compassion in World Farming.

“The inclusion of sustainability criteria in the Dietary Guidelines’ recommendations is a huge step forward for human and planetary health,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth. “By recommending consumption of more plant foods and less meat, these guidelines will encourage people to lessen the huge impact of our diets on our natural resources.”

“Between the huge carbon footprint of the American diet and the vulnerability of our food system to climate change, we’re caught in a dangerous cycle that threatens our health, our food security and the planet. The Obama administration has an opportunity to address this serious threat to future generations by prioritizing sustainability in the new dietary guidelines,” said Stephanie Feldstein of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The letter urges the USDA to resist congressional pressure “…to exclude considerations for sustainability from their final report. To do so would be irresponsible, especially since current industrial food production methods can work to undercut the nation’s long-term food security by contributing to biodiversity loss, soil degradation, water contamination, climate change, and antibiotic resistance.”

The letter also urged the government “…to encourage Americans to consider the methods by which food is produced. More sustainable methods, including organic agriculture and well managed pasture-based livestock systems, promote soil quality, conserve freshwater and other natural resources, promote agricultural biodiversity, and protect pollinators and other beneficial organisms.”

“The food we eat and how it’s raised has a profound effect on public health and the environment,” said Bob Martin, director of Food System Policy at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. “This is especially true in meat production where the industrial model is unsustainable and a potential threat to public health, due in part to the routine use of antibiotics. Dietary guidelines must include how meat is raised, as well as lowering consumption.”

“For today’s newborns to become tomorrow’s Stephen Hawking or Steve Jobs, we’ve got to conserve the farmers, water and other resources we need to grow the healthy foods for nourishing them for the next half century, or more,” said David Wallinga of Healthy Food Action. “Sustainability has to be core to the dietary guidelines, in other words.”

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