Meet the Radicals Creating the New Federal Dietary Guidelines

Environmentalism creeps into food policy

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The federal committee crafting the 2015 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” features radical nutritionists who favor Americans moving to “plant-based” diets and a vice chair that laughs about sending Ronald McDonald to the guillotine.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is responsible for creating new nutrition standards that are used to create policy at the federal level. The committee will meet for the third time on Friday, and though the group has not yet released an agenda, past meetings have heavily focused on climate change.

During DGAC’s second meeting on Jan. 13, Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant and Senior Fellow in the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, was brought to speak on “sustainability.”

“After 30 years of waiting, the fact that this committee is addressing sustainability issues brings me a lot of pleasure,” she began. Clancy went on to advocate that Americans should become vegetarians in order to achieve sustainability in the face of “climate change.”

“What pattern of eating best contributes to food security and the sustainability of land air and water?” Clancy asked. “The simple answer is a plant-based diet.”

“Now, this is not new, this idea of how important plant-based diets are has been around for, gosh, 30-40 years,” she said. “Before that for people who long ago were eating vegetarian.”

Clancy said plant-based diets lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and have a “smaller ecological impact” on “drought, climate change, soil erosion, pesticides and antibiotics in water supplies.”

“In terms of keeping a broader idea of food security in your minds it would be perilous, I would think, for this committee or anybody else to not be taking climate change into account in any of the deliberations about sustainability,” she said.

Clancy said beef production is the “greatest concern.”

Meat production is harmful to the environment because of manure runoff and “methane production by cattle,” she said, which has “a much stronger effect on climate change than carbon dioxide does per unit of methane.”

Following the talk, Dr. Miriam Nelson, a member of the DGAC committee, thanked Clancy for her “really, really wonderful presentation.”

“I think the good news here, in my mind, is that when we look at actually the current dietary guidelines—with the exception of fish, because I think fish is an issue—really we are talking about eating more plants, fewer animals,” she said.

Nelson is DGAC’s work group lead for “Environmental Determinants of Food, Diet, and Health.” She said eating less meat could lower Americans’ carbon footprint.

“Eating fewer animals, but choosing those wisely, and reducing sugar, refined grains, things like that, that diet that we already have stated from the evidence, if we were to get Americans to eat it, would actually have a lower footprint than what we are currently doing,” Nelson said.

Nelson is a nutrition professor at Tufts University and founder of the “Strong Women Initiative,” which seeks to drive “social change by empowering women to be agents of change in the area of nutrition, physical activity, and obesity prevention.”

She said being a vegetarian is “very compelling” to young people.

“We’ve been doing some work right now at Tufts, this message is actually one that is very compelling, especially to young people,” she said. “If we can start coupling this message to young people we might actually have the ability to get people more motivated, and to have companies respond to that because it is marketable. I think we’re at that point.”

Alice Lichtenstein, the committee’s vice chair and a Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, is mainly concerned with changing the eating habits of individuals through policy.

During a recent lecture at Boston University, Lichtenstein talked about “potential solutions” to get Americans to eat healthier.

“So, everybody probably recognizes this gentleman,” she said, showing a slide of Ronald McDonald. “Well, I do spend, usually once a year, some time in Finland, and a radical group actually captured Ronald McDonald, and you see what happened.”

The slide, which reads “potential solutions,” shows an image of the beloved clown being decapitated by a guillotine. A Finnish group called the “Food Liberation Army” held a Ronald McDonald “hostage” in 2011 and released al-Qaeda style ransom videos.

They later beheaded him.

“I’m not necessarily advocating this,” Lichtenstein said, laughing. “I don’t think it really solves the problem, but you can see different people have different—take different ways of dealing with things.”

Lichtenstein disapproves of fast food in general. A double cheeseburger is “not something I usually order,” and it is “too embarrassing” for someone to order a “Great Biggie” at Wendy’s, she said.

She is also a supporter of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban and pointed to the law as a “societal change” that can help alter people’s behavior.

Lichtenstein said Bloomberg’s law, which would have banned businesses from selling sodas over 16 ounces, “has been a little bit more tricky.”

“As you know, there is no ban on super size soda—that was blocked by the courts,” she said. “But there has been efforts to educate people [sic].” She also praised Mexico for instituting an 8 percent tax on soda and junk food and argued for a federal law to require calorie labeling at all restaurants.

“Can we translate nutrition science into public policy? Sure, we do it all the time,” Lichtenstein said. “The challenge really is how to get people to actually embrace the policy that is provided.”

“And can we implement changes based on public policy? I think we are now beginning to learn how to do it, and I think we need to put more emphasis now on figuring out how to change behavior, than on the little details about whether a little more of this is better,” she said.

The dietary guidelines are updated every five years, and are used by the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) to “make appropriate changes and program updates.”

The current recommendations are used for nutrition facts labeling, “national objectives on nutrition and weight status,” and “nutrition and health education programs” run by the Administration on Community Living, Indian Health Service, and Office on Women’s Health .

The USDA uses the guidelines to calibrate benefits and allotments for food stamps, and to “guide decisions on food purchasing, create research grant opportunities, analyze food consumption survey data, and monitor other national initiatives.”

The 2015 dietary guidelines will be released next fall.