April 16, 2015

Will our Sick Planet (Finally) Influence the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines?

Stephanie Kroos/Flickr

For the first time in the United States, the government will assess what constitutes a healthy diet for the American public while also scrutinizing the effects food production has on our natural resources.

A recent federal report published by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee stated,

“Current evidence shows 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 [recommended] dietary patterns.”

The Committee advocates for “diets higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods” to promote health and minimize the effect on the environment.

This latest report is important because it informs the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the federal government on scientific advances in diet, nutrition and health as they write new national dietary policies later this year. These policies may, in turn, influence government spending on school lunches and the military.

NPR reported that Congress has already expressed concern about the inclusion of environmental factors and has directed the Obama administration to ignore this information when revising nutrition policy.

Perhaps this is a product of the meat industry having “one of the more powerful lobbies in Washington, enjoying an especially close relationship with the Agriculture Department, which has inspectors in meat processing plants,” reports The New York Times. In the same article, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reportedly pledged “to keep [the guidelines] focused on nutrition and diet, giving the meat industry some hope that perhaps at least the environmental portion could be left out.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups are hoping that the scientific evidence outlined in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is taken seriously by policy makers.

Timothy Searchinger, researcher at Princeton University and member of the environmental group World Resources Institute, told NPR that natural resources must be taken into consideration because farming practices contribute significantly to overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Regarding an individual’s effect on the environment, he said, “probably what you eat is more important than anything else.”

Thomas Hertel, economist at Purdue University, told NPR in the same report that there is a high cost in meat production, especially beef, because of the amount of methane released and the amount of land it takes to grow food for animals.

If policy makers consider environmental impact in the new dietary recommendations this year, the United States will join several European countries, Australia and Brazil who have already moved in that direction.

The Committee acknowledges that these guidelines mark a new era in nutrition in America. They advocate, “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 public is invited to comment on the Committee’s report. The deadline has been extended to May 8, 2015.



health.gov (Dietary Guidelines)


New York Times


Relephant Reads:

One almond takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow. Guess how much for one ounce of beef?

This is the worst thing you could do to our Environment.


Author: Kristin Bundy

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Stephanie Kroos/Flickr

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Kristin Bundy