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Revised Dietary Guidelines Must 'Dish' On Sustainability

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, our nation's top nutrition advice, are updated and issued by the federal government every five years. For the first time, the 2015 Guidelines may highlight the benefits of eating in a way that is good for environmental sustainability as well as personal health. TC experts weigh in on the critical need to include sustainability in the revised guidelines.

Most of you probably recall learning about the four food groups or their well-known predecessor—the food pyramid—in elementary school health class. Though you probably didn’t know it at the time, you were looking at the federal government’s visual shorthand for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which drive government food decisions; nutrition education; policies in schools, community centers, and hospitals; and what’s on your grocery store’s shelves.

The guidelines are revised every five years. A non-partisan group of experts, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), reviews the scientific literature and makes recommendations to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For most of the Dietary Guidelines’ history, the focus has been on eating for optimal personal health. The DGAC’s recent study for the 2015 Guidelines highlights for the first time the benefits of eating in a way that is also good for environmental sustainability. The federal government will take these recommendations into consideration and release the final Guidelines later this year.

Experts from Teachers College weigh in here on why  including sustainability in the revised guidelines is critical for our future.

Joan Gussow: You have been talking about including sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for a long time, what is the history? 

Since agriculture is the source of the vast majority of the foods humans eat, food was long viewed as the link between agriculture and health.  The link to agriculture was severed by the last half of the 20th century when most eaters had moved away from farms; then once individual nutrients had been isolated foods too often came to be seen as little more than carriers of disparate collections of nutrients relevant to health. 

The idea that the health of agriculture ought once again to be linked to the health of the creatures who ate its products was revived by the growing awareness of the environmental threats introduced by certain “modern” agricultural practices.  How could rational dietary advice be given, some observers began to wonder, without taking account of whether the foods being recommended were produced in a manner that assured their long-term availability?  Such thinking led to the publication of the first Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability[1] in 1986 in which the authors (myself included) discussed how each of the guidelines could be used to help consumers learn about environmental limitations on food production. Joan Gussow, EdD, is the Mary Swartz Rose Professor emerita and former chair of the Nutrition Program, Teachers College



Pam Koch: Why is the timing right to include sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines now? 

We live in a challenging era, when the current generation is expected to have shorter lifespans then their parents due in large part to diet-related diseases. Additionally, there is clear scientific evidence that this same generation will inherit a world that is rapidly changing due to climate change. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds find this greatly concerning. They see that the system producing our food can negatively affect both these intersecting issues. At the same time, people are bombarded by increasingly complicated and contradictory messages about what to eat to be healthy and environmentally responsible.

This is a time when consumers, companies and policy makers would greatly benefit from the clear, science-based, common sense dietary advice the DGAC highlights: eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and less red and processed meat for greater ecological and personal health. The federal government has been given the evidence; it should take the lead to help Americans make healthy and sustainable decisions for current and future generations with the 2015 Guidelines. Pam Koch, EdD, RD, is the Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College and Research Associate Professor of Nutrition Education

 

Matt Graziose: How does a more plant-based diet help to decrease greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change?  

Global food systems have grown increasingly intricate and, by most measures, detrimental to human and environmental health. Agriculture accounts for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), with livestock alone responsible for a full 15%. The rising demand for meat, fuelled by growing populations and incomes, will place a significant burden on our environment in the coming decades and will contribute to climate variability, threatening future food production and worsening yields.

Growing plant foods requires fewer natural resources such as land, water, and soil, and emits fewer polluting gasses when compared to industrially raised livestock. Producing a calorie of plant protein requires 11x less energy than producing a calorie of meat. If the world adopted a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reduced (but did not exclude) sustainably-raised meat, we could expect GHGE to fall by nearly a third. Such dietary patterns also contribute to fewer cases of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Failing to acknowledge the potential of these dietary patterns is shortsighted – for both the health of our planet and our individual health. Matt Graziose, MS, is a doctoral student in the Behavioral Nutrition Program, Teachers College



Claire Uno: Tell us about what sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines would mean for government food programs. 

The Dietary Guidelines are the basis for national food and nutrition assistance programs (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs), as well as meals served to federal employees and prisoners. What would including sustainability in the Guidelines mean in this context? Well, the government spends a LOT of money on food. For federal food and nutrition assistance programs alone, one estimate says that in 2014 we spent $116.42 billion. That kind of purchasing power, directed towards plant-based foods that have a lighter environmental impact, can influence eating behaviors and drive sustainable changes throughout the food system.

For instance, imagine more fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and fewer pepperoni or chicken nuggets on 30.3 million children’s school lunch trays across the country each day. Increased demand for fruits and vegetables could influence the types and prices of healthful foods, making them available more broadly to the community. Farmers who grow those crops would have bigger markets and reap a larger share of federal dollars. These kinds of shifts would contribute to healthier kids, healthier communities, and a healthier environment. However, where many see public health and environmental benefits, some segments of the food industry see significant lost profits, and are lobbying against this recommendation. Claire Uno, MLIS, is the Assistant Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College



Maggie Moon: What including sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines would mean for American citizens? 

Including sustainability as an integral part of creating the “culture of health” called for by DGAC 2015 is a game changer for American citizens, who, up until now, have alone carried the burden of making the right food choices for themselves and their families, and by extension, deciding what kind of food system to support. Robust efforts to promote sustainable food systems in the interest of public health signals a paradigm shift. They foretell better access to, affordability of, and promotion of foods that support both human and planet health. As these foods are promoted by health experts and industry alike, Americans will be more aware than ever that today’s average American diet, which is higher in animal foods than a plant-based diet, results in more greenhouse-gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use. To act on this new awareness, healthful sustainable foods (including plant foods and responsibly-raised animal foods) need to be everywhere: at farmers’ markets, traditional grocery stores, drug stores, delis, restaurants, schools, hospitals, airports, baseball stadiums, and more. What this all means for the average American shopper is that the healthful and sustainable choice may soon be the easy choice. Maggie Moon, MS, RD, is Senior Nutrition Communications Manager for Roll Global, alumna of the Nutrition Program, Teachers College

Want to voice your views on the next Dietary Guidelines? Public comments will be accepted through 11:59 p.m. E.D.T. on May 8, 2015. 

 


[1] Dietary guidelines for sustainability. Gussow and Clancy. Journal of Nutrition Education, Volume 18, Issue 1, 1-5.

Published Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2015

Revised Dietary Guidelines Must 'Dish' On Sustainability

Most of you probably recall learning about the four food groups or their well-known predecessor—the food pyramid—in elementary school health class. Though you probably didn’t know it at the time, you were looking at the federal government’s visual shorthand for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which drive government food decisions; nutrition education; policies in schools, community centers, and hospitals; and what’s on your grocery store’s shelves.

The guidelines are revised every five years. A non-partisan group of experts, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), reviews the scientific literature and makes recommendations to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For most of the Dietary Guidelines’ history, the focus has been on eating for optimal personal health. The DGAC’s recent study for the 2015 Guidelines highlights for the first time the benefits of eating in a way that is also good for environmental sustainability. The federal government will take these recommendations into consideration and release the final Guidelines later this year.

Experts from Teachers College weigh in here on why  including sustainability in the revised guidelines is critical for our future.

Joan Gussow: You have been talking about including sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for a long time, what is the history? 

Since agriculture is the source of the vast majority of the foods humans eat, food was long viewed as the link between agriculture and health.  The link to agriculture was severed by the last half of the 20th century when most eaters had moved away from farms; then once individual nutrients had been isolated foods too often came to be seen as little more than carriers of disparate collections of nutrients relevant to health. 

The idea that the health of agriculture ought once again to be linked to the health of the creatures who ate its products was revived by the growing awareness of the environmental threats introduced by certain “modern” agricultural practices.  How could rational dietary advice be given, some observers began to wonder, without taking account of whether the foods being recommended were produced in a manner that assured their long-term availability?  Such thinking led to the publication of the first Dietary Guidelines for Sustainability[1] in 1986 in which the authors (myself included) discussed how each of the guidelines could be used to help consumers learn about environmental limitations on food production. Joan Gussow, EdD, is the Mary Swartz Rose Professor emerita and former chair of the Nutrition Program, Teachers College



Pam Koch: Why is the timing right to include sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines now? 

We live in a challenging era, when the current generation is expected to have shorter lifespans then their parents due in large part to diet-related diseases. Additionally, there is clear scientific evidence that this same generation will inherit a world that is rapidly changing due to climate change. More and more people of all ages and backgrounds find this greatly concerning. They see that the system producing our food can negatively affect both these intersecting issues. At the same time, people are bombarded by increasingly complicated and contradictory messages about what to eat to be healthy and environmentally responsible.

This is a time when consumers, companies and policy makers would greatly benefit from the clear, science-based, common sense dietary advice the DGAC highlights: eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds and less red and processed meat for greater ecological and personal health. The federal government has been given the evidence; it should take the lead to help Americans make healthy and sustainable decisions for current and future generations with the 2015 Guidelines. Pam Koch, EdD, RD, is the Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College and Research Associate Professor of Nutrition Education

 

Matt Graziose: How does a more plant-based diet help to decrease greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change?  

Global food systems have grown increasingly intricate and, by most measures, detrimental to human and environmental health. Agriculture accounts for a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), with livestock alone responsible for a full 15%. The rising demand for meat, fuelled by growing populations and incomes, will place a significant burden on our environment in the coming decades and will contribute to climate variability, threatening future food production and worsening yields.

Growing plant foods requires fewer natural resources such as land, water, and soil, and emits fewer polluting gasses when compared to industrially raised livestock. Producing a calorie of plant protein requires 11x less energy than producing a calorie of meat. If the world adopted a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reduced (but did not exclude) sustainably-raised meat, we could expect GHGE to fall by nearly a third. Such dietary patterns also contribute to fewer cases of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Failing to acknowledge the potential of these dietary patterns is shortsighted – for both the health of our planet and our individual health. Matt Graziose, MS, is a doctoral student in the Behavioral Nutrition Program, Teachers College



Claire Uno: Tell us about what sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines would mean for government food programs. 

The Dietary Guidelines are the basis for national food and nutrition assistance programs (e.g. SNAP, WIC, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs), as well as meals served to federal employees and prisoners. What would including sustainability in the Guidelines mean in this context? Well, the government spends a LOT of money on food. For federal food and nutrition assistance programs alone, one estimate says that in 2014 we spent $116.42 billion. That kind of purchasing power, directed towards plant-based foods that have a lighter environmental impact, can influence eating behaviors and drive sustainable changes throughout the food system.

For instance, imagine more fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and fewer pepperoni or chicken nuggets on 30.3 million children’s school lunch trays across the country each day. Increased demand for fruits and vegetables could influence the types and prices of healthful foods, making them available more broadly to the community. Farmers who grow those crops would have bigger markets and reap a larger share of federal dollars. These kinds of shifts would contribute to healthier kids, healthier communities, and a healthier environment. However, where many see public health and environmental benefits, some segments of the food industry see significant lost profits, and are lobbying against this recommendation. Claire Uno, MLIS, is the Assistant Executive Director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, Teachers College



Maggie Moon: What including sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines would mean for American citizens? 

Including sustainability as an integral part of creating the “culture of health” called for by DGAC 2015 is a game changer for American citizens, who, up until now, have alone carried the burden of making the right food choices for themselves and their families, and by extension, deciding what kind of food system to support. Robust efforts to promote sustainable food systems in the interest of public health signals a paradigm shift. They foretell better access to, affordability of, and promotion of foods that support both human and planet health. As these foods are promoted by health experts and industry alike, Americans will be more aware than ever that today’s average American diet, which is higher in animal foods than a plant-based diet, results in more greenhouse-gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use. To act on this new awareness, healthful sustainable foods (including plant foods and responsibly-raised animal foods) need to be everywhere: at farmers’ markets, traditional grocery stores, drug stores, delis, restaurants, schools, hospitals, airports, baseball stadiums, and more. What this all means for the average American shopper is that the healthful and sustainable choice may soon be the easy choice. Maggie Moon, MS, RD, is Senior Nutrition Communications Manager for Roll Global, alumna of the Nutrition Program, Teachers College

Want to voice your views on the next Dietary Guidelines? Public comments will be accepted through 11:59 p.m. E.D.T. on May 8, 2015. 

 


[1] Dietary guidelines for sustainability. Gussow and Clancy. Journal of Nutrition Education, Volume 18, Issue 1, 1-5.

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