Staples of a vegetarian diet. (Image: Peggy Greb, USDA ARS)

Staples of a vegetarian diet. (Image: Peggy Greb, USDA ARS)

A federally-appointed panel of nutritionists has released a report that, for the first time, incorporates not only human health but also environmental sustainability into its recommendations. The exhaustive report concludes that that a vegan diet holds the greatest health benefits. The meat industry does not agree.

Kristina Butts, executive director of legislative affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, accused the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) of overstepping its job description. “When you talk about the lens of the dietary guidelines it’s just not appropriate for the advisory committee to enter that conversation when they were asked to look at nutrition and health science,” she said.

The accusation is a bit hostile, considering that the DGAC’s role has been (as its name suggests) only to advise the Departments of Agricultural and Health and Human Services in drafting their dietary guidelines for the year. The scope of that recommendation is defined by the DGAC, but the Departments ultimately decide whether they are incorporated into the guidelines.

Barbara Millen, the DGAC’s chair and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, told The Hill that the Committee chose to look at sustainability this year because they were encouraging Americans to eat more seafood. Overfishing is now such a global problem that to not incorporate sustainability would verge on irresponsible.

That did not prevent Betsy Booren, the vice president of scientific affairs for the North American Meat Institute, from taking a decidedly dim view of the DGAC’s act of conscience. Like Butts, Booren also calls the Committee’s recommendations “not appropriate.”

“The same concern would exist if an expert sustainability committee were making nutrition policy recommendations,” she said in a public meeting last week. “It is not appropriate for the person designing a better light bulb to be telling Americans how to make a better sandwich.”

According to the DGAC, a diet that is lower in red and processed meats and higher in fruits, nuts and vegetables not only improves the health of consumers but also reduces total greenhouse gas emissions. In the whole 571-page report, this passage seems to have drawn the most criticism:

“Baroni et al. examined vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous diets, both organically and conventionally grown, and found that the organically grown vegan diet had the most potential health benefits; whereas, the conventionally grown average Italian diet had the least. The organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality, and the average Italian diet had the greatest projected impact.”

Millen says this has led to a lot of confusion and misdirected ire, as despite this finding, the DGAC actually created three separate diet guidelines for eating healthy: A vegetarian option, a Mediterranean-style option and a healthy U.S.-style option.

“If people took the time to understand, this is not a meat-free diet and this is not vegan approach, they’d realize this is a healthy dietary pattern with three models that offers consumers a lot of choice,” she told The Hill.

That said, the report does state that beef – a common American staple – is “the single food with the greatest projected impact on the environment; other foods estimated to have high impact included cheese, milk, and seafood.”

cowsOn Tuesday, 71 House Republicans sent a letter to the Agricultural Department and the Health and Human Services Department urging the dietary guidelines to adhere to proper nutritional data. In the letter, the legislators fear that the DGAC has “greatly exceeded their scope in developing the recommendations for the secretaries of USDA and HHS.”

The DGAC was established in 1983 and is comprised of experts in the nutrition field. In the executive summary to their report, they mention that approximately half of all American adults (117 million people) have one or more preventable chronic diseases and about two-thirds of American adults (155 million) are overweight or obese. Their recommendations are based on the fact that “[p]ositive changes in individual diet and physical activity behaviors, and in the environmental contexts and systems that affect them, could substantially improve health outcomes.”

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One Response

  1. JFC says:

    The Food Guidelines should fall outside of the scope of the USDA! The USDA has two mandates, advise the public about nutrition AND promote agricultural products. Not all agricultural products are healthy, but they get the lion’s share of USDA money to promote. This is just plain wrong! Doesn’t the Food Guidelines sound like some the United States Department of Health and Human Services should be doing???

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