Feds: If You Care About Health and the Environment, Change the Way You Eat

A nutrition panel says we’re eating terribly—and that we could change society if we did better.

(Photo: Maarten Wouters/Getty Images)

Feb 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It’s time to break up with the American diet. And no, it’s not you—it’s us.

That’s the biggest takeaway from the nearly 600-page report released Thursday by the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. What’s for dinner may be an individual choice, but when it comes to setting nutrition standards, we are the sum total (environmentally, calorically) of what we eat. The document, which will inform the new federal dietary guidelines, was “guided by two fundamental realities,” the authors write: that unhealthy diets are creating high rates of preventable, chronic disease and obesity, and that diet choices are “strongly influenced by personal, social, organizational, and environmental contexts and systems.”

In other words, the way we eat is a reflection of society and the environment on the whole.

Currently, the image we’re reflecting isn’t very attractive. Close to half the sugar Americans consume is in the form of sweetened beverages such as soda. Nearly 15 percent of energy intake comes from sandwiches and burgers. As The Washington Post put it in its headline, “Nation’s top nutrition panel: the American diet is killing us.”

But what’s promising here is the image of a future American diet the report projects: One that’s largely plant based and low in red meat, sugar, and processed foods. A way of eating that “is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

And this, mind you, from a crew of federal bearcats, not Michael Pollan. Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University and a frequent critic of federal nutrition policy, called the recommendations “courageous.” Ag industry trade groups, unsurprisingly, are furious over the indictment of meat-and-potatoes dining. In a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association press release, Richard Thorpe, a Texas rancher, said, “It is absurd for the Advisory Committee to suggest that Americans should eat less red meat and focus so heavily on plant-based diets.”

The gap between the report’s recommendations and reality—or even official federal policy—is significant, however. Realizing this notion of the American diet a “will require a paradigm shift to an environment in which population health is a national priority and where individuals and organizations, private business, and communities work together to achieve a population-wide ‘culture of health’ in which healthy lifestyle choices are easy, accessible, affordable, and normative.”

What’s the first step toward making that shift? The report is open for public comment for the next 45 days.