Last week, just ahead of Congressional hearings on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, Tom Vilsack of USDA and Sylvia Burwell of HHS — the two government leaders currently in charge of the twice-a-decade updating of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — declared that sustainability would not be part of this year’s update.
That’s unfortunate, because it’s hard to talk about what’s best for Americans to eat, without considering how those choices end up on our plates. A look at just one element — vegetables — makes that clear:
  • The Dietary Guidelines recommend we all eat 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables daily, but USDA data show that we currently grow only 1.7 cups per day, per person, according to an NPR report last month.
  • Note that those 1.7 cups are skewed toward potatoes and tomatoes, which make up 50% of all vegetables grown. To get the dark leafy greens, broccoli, peppers, cabbages, pulses, and so forth that we need would require increasing our vegetable supply by 70% and changing what’s grown, according a 2010 study from the National Cancer Institute.
And that’s before we even start looking at meat, the topic that by all accounts caused Vilsack and Burwell to raise the white flag last week. According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Americans eat more than 1.5 times their daily protein needs, and largely because of meat production, only 40% of cropland in the US is devoted to growing food for direct human consumption. What’s more, livestock contributes an estimated 18% to 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, as explained in The Conversation.
It’s always hard to separate out cause and effect. Do we eat poorly because our food supply doesn’t reflect the recommendations for healthy eating — or is our food supply skewed toward these choices because of consumer demand for less-healthy choices?
No matter which comes first, one part of the solution would be a consistent, harmonious response from government, where farm subsidies align with dietary recommendations to make fruits, vegetables, and pulses less expensive instead of subsidizing corn grown for cattle feed and for high fructose corn syrup. As a 2012 editorial in Scientific American put it, “Public money is working at cross-purposes: backing an overabundance of unhealthful calories that are flooding our supermarkets and restaurants, while also battling obesity and the myriad illnesses that got with it. It’s time to align our farm policies with our health policies.”
Apparently Congress has decided it’s not time yet. But Oldways disagrees, which is why the issue of sustainability is on the table at our upcoming Finding Common Ground conference November 17-18 here in Boston.
With the 2015 Dietary Guidelines turning into a political football in our gridlocked Congress, we’re bringing together top nutrition experts from across the nutrition spectrum, from vegan to Paleo, and asking them to reach consensus on a way of eating that’s healthy for us, and for Mother Earth. Check out the details and our list of scientists here.
Whether or not you believe cutting back on meat will save the planet, new evidence shows it will save your bank account. A study last month in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition compared a vegetarian diet to the budget version of USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, and found that going veggie would save each of us nearly $750 a year. Hold the chicken, and pass the chickpeas!
Cynthia, Oldways Whole Grains Council, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies

Add a Comment