National Geographic: New U.S. Dietary Recommendations First to Consider Environmental Impact

New U.S. Dietary Recommendations reported on the National Geographic Website, Feb 19, 2015

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued its recommendations today, calling on Americans to eat less meat, watch their sodium intake, and start thinking about the environment more. As many had predicted, it also peeled back a 40-year-old warning against eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs and shrimp.

“The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains,” the report says.

Not a surprise, unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, but the devil will be in the details.

One critical detail is that the committee, for the first time, is including “the impact of food production, processing, and consumption on environmental sustainability” in its recommendations.

“Linking health, dietary guidance, and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security,” the committee says.

After intense lobbying by representatives of the U.S. meat industry and other special interest groups, the language calling on Americans to eat less red meat was softened somewhat by a footnote saying that lean red meat can be part of a healthy diet. (Read more about the meat debate in “Carnivore’s Dilemma” in National Geographic magazine.)

Why It Matters

While some see being told what to eat as a “big government as nanny” moment, the recommendations—and what the U.S. Department of Agriculture ultimately decides to adopt—are used to set food policy for major institutions and schools. Those policies in turn serve as a guide for everyone who wants to do business with or just plain needs to eat at government offices, other big institutions, or schools.

The Big Picture

Dietary recommendations like these don’t come around all that often. The U.S. Department of Agriculture releases them only every five years. A lot of science and politics can change in that time, and someone always has a beef with what ends up in the final document.

Despite some debate about saturated versus unsaturated fats, with some research suggesting that saturated fats aren’t as bad as once thought, most dieticians and health experts are generally pleased with the recommendation to limit saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. (Related: “Is Fat Our Friend?”)

The committee members “don’t move at all on the issue of what kinds of fats to eat. They continue to recommend limiting saturated fat and supporting polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats,” Steven Nissen, chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, told Time magazine. “I would have liked the guidelines to be a little more neutral on saturated fat.”