Lower-meat diet recommended for the US

For the first time, the expert scientific committee that advises the US government on healthy eating has included environmental considerations and recommended sustainable diets with less meat and more plant-based foods. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee says a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, 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 which is high in meat. It says applying environmental and sustainability factors to dietary guidelines can be accomplished because of the compatibility and degree of overlap between favourable health and environmental outcomes.

The committee says such sustainable diets can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including what the Committee calls the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. It also notes that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status.

In its authoritative review of the evidence the Committee concludes that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. 

The Committee’s report affirms the importance of linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment to promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security. It draws attention to the rapidly evolving research on food consumption and environmental sustainability and the need for evaluation of how best to shift behaviours locally, nationally and globally to support sustainable diets.

It advises that sustainability messaging be included in communication strategies as an additional rationale for Americans to follow the Dietary Guidelines, and sustainability considerations should be incorporated into federal and local nutrition feeding programmes. It also calls for ‘consumer friendly’ information that facilitates understanding the environmental impact of different foods in food and menu labelling initiatives.

Unlike the UK, it is a legal requirement to update the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. To meet this requirement, a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee of nationally recognised experts reviews the scientific and medical knowledge current at the time and makes recommendations to the Federal government’s Secretaries of Health and Agriculture for their updating of the 2015 edition of the Guidelines.

In her message to the Secretaries of Health and Agriculture, Chair of the Committee, Dr Barbara Millen calls for ‘bold action’ to reverse the ‘alarming trends’ in major diet-related health problems facing the US nation. Over half the US nation suffers one or more preventable chronic disease related to poor quality diets and inactivity, including cardiovascular disease, hypertention, type-2 diabetes and diet-related cancers, and more than two-thirds of adults and a third of children overweight or obese. These are ‘devastating health problems’ she says,’ which have persisted for decades, strained US health care costs and focussed the attention of health care systems on treatment rather than prevention.’

All eyes will be on whether the Government supports the Committee’s recommendations when it publishes the 2015 Dietary Guidelines later this year.

The US meat industry lobby is already fighting the Committee’s recommendations – claiming the nutrition committee doesn’t have the expertise to address environmental issues. If the USDA adopts these positions, then it'll be the first time ever that the agency actively discourages meat consumption (current guidelines encourage consumption by suggesting lean meats). Analysts last month warned investors to be wary of the meat industry with consumption already steadily declining. 

Eating Better comment: Eating Better welcomes the US Committee’s report. ‘This authoritative review of the evidence, including research from the UK, confirms that it is time to update national dietary guidelines in the UK to include advice on shifting diets towards lower meat and more plant-based diets for health and environmental considerations,’ says Sue Dibb, Eating Better’s coordinator.

Eating Better is calling for UK government to update the UK’s Eatwell Plate official dietary guidance for sustainability – see our Policy Briefing. In addition to the US latest recommendations, other countries including the Netherlands, France, Nordic Countries, and Brazil have already published such advice. As we previously reported UK guidelines were introduced twenty years ago and have not been updated since.

 

Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidance Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture, February 2015

The Committee’s recommendations are now open to public consultation until 8 April 2015.

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