The federal committee drafting nutrition guidelines continued to stress the importance of moving Americans towards plant-based diets on Friday, arguing that eating less meat and fewer snacks can save the planet.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) held its fourth meeting, again devoting a session to "sustainability," which will be taken into account for nutrition standards that are used to create policy at the federal level.
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The USDA recently hired an environmental food activist to lead its Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which oversees DGAC, drawing fears that the committee is doubling down on infusing environmentalism into the guidelines. The committee has previously been criticized for putting climate change over food science.
Those concerns likely will not subside following Friday’s meeting, which included a presentation by Miriam Nelson, the DGAC’s work group leader for "Environmental Determinants of Food, Diet, and Health."
"Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is lower in animal-based foods and higher in plant-based foods has a lesser environmental impact and at the same time is more health-promoting than the current American diet," Nelson said.
"Promoting more sustainable diets will contribute to food security for present and future generations by conserving resources," she said. "This approach should be encouraged across all food sectors."
Nelson said there is "remarkable consistency" in research that vegetarian-like diets are better for the planet. The presentation focused on "sustainability outcomes" for the food system, which take into account "environment footprint," including greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and biodiversity.
Jeff Stier, a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, said the committee is now "quadrupling down" on their commitment to environmentalism.
"The goal is to push sustainability not to push healthy eating," Stier said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon.
"They’ve made it very clear that they don’t just want to have an intellectual discussion," he said. "The person they hired to oversee the committee is the [sustainability] movement’s biggest cheerleader," referencing the appointment of Angela Tagtow, a "good food" activist who advocates for social justice in the food system and an "ecological approach" to nutrition.
"The hiring of Tagtow was doubling down [on sustainability]," Stier said. "They’re quadrupling down now."
During the meeting, Alice Lichtenstein, DGAC’s vice chair who likes to joke about decapitating Ronald McDonald, said the committee should be careful because a "plant-based" diet could mean French fries and potato chips.
"We just need to be very careful of generalizing because plant-based could be potato chips and French fries," she said. "I just think we have to have a lot more specificity in terms of plant-based. You know, it’s the same thing about dairy products, what’s low-fat, non-fat, versus full-fat."
Nelson agreed, and added that plant-based diets should not include snacks and sweets, arguing that they are harmful to the environment.
"There’s actually some—it’s more limited evidence—but in fact, if you reduce high calorie snacks and sweets, you actually have a lower environmental footprint," Nelson said.
The panel also discussed the importance of getting the message out to Americans, in order to change their diets.
"I really appreciate this," said Wayne Campbell, a nutrition professor at Purdue University and a member of DGAC. "I’m just curious about if your group work in the future will allow for some sort of an assessment of the magnitude of an effect we can have by a certain amount of change."
"I want to be able to hopefully have a message that includes, ‘Hey, a modest change, or moving in the right direction,’ it’s almost like the exercise thing, in a way, on a global scale," he said. "Nobody’s going to get all the way to eating the perfect diet. If you’re progressing, it’s good."
Nelson was enthusiastic about his question.
"Good point. Some of the studies did show magnitude and what it would do," she said. "I think we can come back to that because that’s a really important piece."
She noted that a "green message" could be used to help influence young people’s diets, and be a "real motivating factor."
"Hopefully one of the messages we can take out to the public that could be taken from this research into the public policy stuff is what individuals and groups of communities and the like can actually do to have an impact without it just seeming too daunting," Campbell said.
Nelson argued that the recommendations she discussed were not far from the 2010 dietary guidelines, and that Americans only need to be persuaded into following them. The 2010 guidelines called for reducing sodium intake, consuming alcohol in moderation, and consuming more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, lean meats, and peas.
"We’re not out of context with the guidelines, we’re not really talking about something different that what we already have," she said. "It’s in line with it, and it could be used as another messaging tool that is motivating for a lot of people."
Stier said the defense that "this is nothing new" is not sufficient to appease critics of the committee.
"Sustainability was in fact mentioned in the 2010 guidelines but it’s now increasing in prominence," he said. "And with the appointment of Tagtow it may actually have a policy implication. Before it was just language bouncing around in the meeting, but this is how policy happens over time."
"Now they’re dedicating 20 percent of their committee work to sustainability," he said.