Column: Greening the food pyramid
On Feb. 19, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its scientific report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. The report, which recommends ways for people to improve their overall health and nutrition, will ultimately become the basis for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The government released the first Dietary Guidelines in 1980, and since then it has published a new version every five years with the aim of preventing chronic disease in the U.S.
In many ways, DGAC’s report is similar to those it has released in past years. As usual, it recommends that Americans eat more fruits and vegetables, maintain an active lifestyle and limit intake of sodium and saturated fats. But despite these fundamental similarities, this year’s report differs from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
The 2010 Guidelines, for example, recommend that Americans consume less than 300 mg per day of cholesterol, a nutrient that has a reputation for being harmful to one’s health. This year, however, the DGAC decided that, “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
According to Janet Foote, an assistant professor in the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health division of epidemiology and biostatistics, the DGAC analyzed “peer-reviewed, scientific research,” along with “nationally representative surveys of diet and health-related parameters of our population,” and it found that consumption of certain fats and low activity levels are more highly correlated with circulating blood cholesterol than cholesterol intake from food sources.
“The increases in obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases are not only due to dietary intake, but are due to multiple factors in our lifestyles and environment,” Foote said. “In response to these systems-based problems, the DGAC recognized that offering isolated nutrient advice would not be the most efficacious approach.”
This idea of a “systems-based approach” constitutes the report’s most notable departure from recent years. In particular, the current report urges Americans to consider how their dietary choices affect the ability of the U.S. to sustain its growing population. For the first time, it acknowledges how food and beverage consumption impacts the environment, from “farm to plate to waste disposal.”
“The DGAC recognized that environmental, social, economic and political factors affect our food choices, access and eating behaviors,” Foote said. “Treating dietary intake in isolation from the community system in which we live would not have the impact necessary to alter the current prevalence of preventable conditions among our population.”
Unsurprisingly, the inclusion of environmental sustainability in the DGAC’s report has elicited a host of criticism from conservatives who believe the committee has strayed too far from traditional ideas about nutrition. Indeed, prior to the report’s release, the House Appropriations Committee directed the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services not to include environmental concerns in the final version of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
The meat industry also opposes the DGAC’s environmentalism. The National Pork Board, for example, recently issued a statement arguing that pork production constitutes a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. It alleges that the benefits of pork outweigh any negative environmental consequences.
Although pork production itself may not pose serious environmental dangers, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. Meat production further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because most commodities are shipped to locations hundreds of miles from where they were produced.
Other environmental risks associated with food production include overfishing, overgrazing, wildlife habitat destruction and soil and water contamination. Moreover, excessive packaging using non-recyclable plastics drains our natural resources and creates unnecessary waste.
Refusing to acknowledge the connection between environmental sustainability and nutrition is both damaging and narrow-minded. If we continue to produce and consume foods in a way that damages the environment, we risk making such foods completely unavailable to future generations, thereby jeopardizing the health of our communities.
In constructing the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, HHS and USDA should adhere to the DGAC’s recommendations and maintain a “systems-based” approach to nutrition that protects both our health and our environment.
Elizabeth Hannah is biochemistry sophomore. Follow her on Twitter.