Should Sustainability Be in Scope for U.S. Dietary Guidelines?


If you’re a food policy wonk like me, then you likely know that the DGAC published commentary about food, nutrition, and sustainability in their January 2015 report:

Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average U.S. diet. (p 383)

If you’re not so wonky, then you’re asking who’s the DGAC, what’s GHG, and BTW, what’s the big deal?


Some Background on the Process

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are published every five years. In the lingo, we call them the DGAs. The DGAC stands for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee. They are the group of experts, mostly PhDs and MDs, who review the latest and greatest science to draft a scientific report about what Americans should eat for a healthy diet. This report gets delivered to two government agencies jointly - namely the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture - who then create the version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that the general public ends up seeing.

The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee totaled 571 pages. Feel free to read it here. Sustainability is mentioned in the DGAC report. More specifically, there are 51 mentions of ‘sustainable diet’, 17 for ‘plant-based’, and greenhouse gas (as in, GHG) is mentioned 13 times.

The current 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are here. There is one mention of plant-based. Yes, just one. It occurs in Appendix 5 entitled USDA Food Patterns: Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern on page 105 as follows:

This Pattern can be vegan if all dairy choices are comprised of fortified soy beverages (soymilk) or other plant-based dairy substitutes.

There is no mention of a sustainable diet or greenhouse gases in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Hmm.

What Gives?

The issue is the USDA released a statement in late 2015 stating:

The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.

In short, the DGAC was to stay focused on the health and nutrition of Americans and not veer off into considering how dietary choices impact the health of the planet too. Many a journalist, researcher, policymaker, and consumer had a thing or two to say about sustainability being declared out of scope. From Harvard School of Public Health to NPR to Mother Jones, there was major dialogue about whether or not the conversation about food for humans can really be separated from the conversation about food and the planet. Many feel they are inextricably linked, myself included.


The Look Ahead to the 2020-2025 Version

Looking ahead, the process for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is ‘under way’ according to the USDA.

First off, one thing that is notably different this time around is that the upcoming version will include recommendations for a new U.S. population age range: birth to 24 months. Offering dietary guidance for the youngest of Americans is important, and finally will be included after all these years. You can expect one sticking point will be around breastfeeding versus formula-feeding.

As to sustainable diets, there’s precedent in many countries around the world for this topic to be included in dietary guidance recommendations. As outlined by the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, countries with language addressing sustainability include Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, The Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, United Kingdom, and Uruguay. The language is about eating less meat and eating more plants. Importantly, sustainable diet recommendations also often include language about consuming only enough calories for energy balance (as in, don’t over consume calories and therefore excess food), reducing food waste and choosing foods with minimal or no packaging. The guidance varies by country obviously, but the point here is there is absolutely precedent for sustainability to be considered in public health-level dietary guidance.

And with that, I will quote the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and one of my former Tufts University professors…

‘If not the 2015 DGA, then maybe the 2020 DGAs.’ - Dr. Kathleen Merrigan

I sure hope she’s right.