Healthy Planet

In January, U.S. government officials released the new 2015-2020 Dietary
Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), a set of national nutrition standards
that guide food labeling, school lunch menus and public nutrition
programs. The guidelines, which are revised every five years, are based on
evolving nutrition science, and serve as the government’s official advice
on how we Americans should be eating. But there’s one big thing missing
in the guidelines: the connection between food, human health and the
environment. And its absence could have profound effects for our planet.

What’s new?

THE 2015 DGAS don’t look radically
different than the 2010 guidelines,
or any of the other guidelines that
have come out the last 35 years.
Recommendations remain in place for
eating more fruits, vegetables, whole
grains, and less saturated fat. But
there are three modifications worth
mentioning:

Crackdown on sugar.
No more than 10 percent of daily
calories should come from added
sugars. For most Americans, that
means cutting sugar intake by
nearly half-to no more than 12
teaspoons a day on a 2,000-calorie
daily diet. This is the first time the
DGAs set an upper limit for added
sugar intake, and importantly, it
means that the amount of “added
sugars” will for the first time be
included on the upcoming revised
Nutrition Facts label.

Fat type matters.
The upper limit for total dietary fat
has been removed, with a greater
emphasis on consuming certain
kinds of fat (unsaturated-olive
oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados,
oily fish, eggs) and avoiding others
(saturated-dairy, fatty cuts of beef,
pork, lamb, processed meats, lard,
margarine, coconut oil).

Cholesterol is decriminalized.
The latest official advice on dietary
cholesterol is that it does not play a
major role in blood cholesterol. In
other words, the kind of cholesterol
in the foods we eat isn’t the driving
factor for the kind of cholesterol
doctors care about.

Overall, this edition of the DGAs puts
a greater emphasis on lifelong eating
patterns that contain adequate essential
nutrients, a caloric intake that supports
a healthy body weight and foods that
reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Sounds pretty good, right? Until you
hear about the recommendations
that got left behind, namely, that
sustainability be entered into the
equation.

The 2015 DGAS: An abridged timeline

June 2013

The U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services (HHS) and
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s
(USDA) Dietary Guidelines Advisory
Committee begins to draft the 2015
guidelines.

One of the five subcommittees
focuses on “Food Sustainability and
Safety.” This is the first time the word
“sustainability” is used in relation to
the guidelines, and it attracts attention
from both supporters and opponents.

February 2015

The conversation heats up when the
U.S. Office of Disease Prevention
and Health Promotion (ODPHP)
releases a scientific report of the
2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory
Committee that includes a section
on “Food Sustainability and Safety.”
It reads, “Current evidence shows
that the average U.S. diet has a larger
environmental impact in terms of
increased greenhouse gas emissions,
land use, water use, and energy use,”
when compared to “a diet higher in
plant-based foods.”

May 2015

The public comment period on the
scientific report of the 2015 Dietary
Guidelines Advisory Committee
closes. By then the HHS and USDA
secretaries have received hundreds of
letters from doctors and NGOs (nongovernmental organization) supporting
recommendations to eat more
plant-based foods and some 29,000
comments are submitted and posted to
the health.gov website. An analysis of
the comments shows “overwhelming
support for including sustainability”
and recommendations for reducing the
amount of meat in U.S. diets.

October 2015

On Oct. 6, HHS and USDA secretaries
publish a joint blog explaining why
sustainability won’t be included in
the new dietary guidelines, writing,
“There has been some discussion this
year about whether we would include
the goal of sustainability as a factor
in developing dietary guidelines.
(Sustainability in this context means
evaluating the environmental impact
of a food source.)” But, they conclude,
“we do not believe that the 2015
DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for
this important policy conversation
about sustainability.”

December 2015

Congress passes the 2016 federal
budget spending bill, which includes
an amendment directing that no
money be spent on new dietary
guidelines unless the HHS and USDA
ensure that the guidelines are based on
“significant scientific agreement” and
are limited to “nutrition and dietary
information.”

January 2016

The new guidelines are released.
They do not include explicit
recommendations to reduce meat
consumption, instead emphasizing a
“shift towards other protein foods.”
Nor, in the 209-page document is
there a single mention of the word
“sustainability.”

A great disconnect

What we see in the language of
the new guidelines is the continued
divorcing of foods from their sources, a
reduction of whole ingredients to their
molecular makeups, and the absence of
a holistic picture of human health as it
relates to the health of the planet.

This is a problem because there’s a
complex relationship between diet and
the environment; what’s good for us
health-wise isn’t always what’s best for
the planet. Eating a “rich variety of
fruits and vegetables” can sometimes
mean choosing produce that’s traveled
a long way, or that requires a lot
of water. The recommendation to
“incorporate seafood as the protein
choice in meals twice per week in
place of meat, poultry or eggs,”
doesn’t address where that fish will
come from in a world with fewer and
fewer fish every day. And there are a
lot of nuances associated with meat
production that totally get left out;
grass-fed animals that graze where
nothing else could grow turn that land
into a productive ecosystem that also
sequesters carbon in a way that tilled
fields do not. But it also takes longer
for them to get to market, which
means more methane production over
their lifetime. As you can see, things
get complicated quickly.

And without some guidance from
our latest Nutritional Guidelines,
navigating these tradeoffs can be
tricky. There are a lot of bad options
out there, but here at the Wedge,
we’ve never been able to think about
nutrition without thinking about
sustainability. It’s been our mission
going back 40 years to provide foods
that support both human health and
the health of the planet, by sourcing
the best possible selections of foods
thoughtfully grown and raised by
vendors who care.

An alternative approach

So we’ve attempted to do
something the government hasn’t:
make a few dietary recommendations
that consider the environment. Bear
in mind, we’re not nutritionists;
these are more food for thought than
anything else.

  1. Eat a variety of proteins.

    Different kinds of meats have
    different carbon footprints, mostly
    due to how the animals were raised,
    what they ate, and how much
    methane they produced. Beef and
    lamb tend to have a bigger impact
    than pork and poultry, while plantbased proteins like lentils and beans
    contribute even fewer emissions. By
    mixing it up, you both ensure that
    you are getting the necessary proteins
    you need for a healthy diet, and are
    making choices that are better for
    the planet. The Wedge sources from
    local, grass-fed farms for many of our
    meat products and strives to provide
    you with options that minimize
    harmful environmental impacts.

  2. When you can eat local.

    Local produce means fewer
    transportation miles, which means
    less fuel has been used, which means
    less extraction of nonrenewable
    resources from the Earth’s crust.
    It also means fewer green-house
    gas emissions; transportation as an
    industry contributes to 28 percent of
    global emissions. Buying local helps
    in other ways as well. As the heatstressed American West continues
    to grapple with years of drought,
    choosing produce that’s grown locally
    in the Midwest helps reduce the
    demand for produce that’s grown on
    an ever-shrinking water table. It might
    mean giving up romaine lettuce in the
    winter, but it also means finding new
    ways to enjoy foods grown right in our
    backyards-like carrots, rutabagas,
    and other root vegetables. The Wedge
    works with dozens of family farmers
    to bring you the very best in local
    fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, and
    responsibly raised meats, so you’ll
    always have delicious options!

  3. Try going vegetarian a few days a week.

    Current evidence shows that the
    average U.S. diet has a larger
    environmental impact in terms of
    increased greenhouse gas emissions,
    water use, land use, and energy use,
    as compared with diets that include
    less meat. So do the Earth a favor, and
    strive to incorporate more vegetarian
    meals in your routine. There are some
    excellent sources of plant-based protein
    you can find at the Wedge-from
    lentils, beans and quinoa in the Bulk
    section to locally made tempehs and
    tofus in the cold case. Plus, it’s a great
    opportunity to hit up our diverse and
    well-stocked Produce aisle!

  4. Choose your seafood carefully.

    A moderate amount of seafood is an
    important component of a healthy
    diet. It’s a source of lean protein and
    beneficial fatty acids. But the collapse
    of some fisheries due to overfishing in
    the past decades has raised concern
    about the ability of our oceans to
    produce a safe and affordable supply
    of seafood. To meet current and
    future demands, farm-raised seafood
    will be needed, despite concerns
    over environmental impacts. A good
    general rule of thumb for choosing
    farmed seafood is to stay low on the
    food chain. Filter feeders like oysters,
    mussels, clams and scallops are
    great choices because they’re carbon
    footprints are so low-very close to
    zero. When choosing wild species,
    look for well-managed fisheries here
    in the U.S. and use consumer guides
    like Seafood Watch from the Monterey
    Bay Aquarium to inform your choices.
    Or just ask your friendly Wedge
    Meat & Seafood staff-they’re very
    knowledgeable about sourcing and can
    help you make the right choice.

*If you have special needs or dietary
guidelines laid out for you by a
physician, please don’t change your
eating patterns without first consulting
him or her
.

Sources:

  • Civil Eats
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the
    United Nations
  • Harvard University, School of Public Health
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • My Plate, My Planet
  • National Public Radio
  • “Energy use, blue water footprint, and
    greenhouse gas emissions for current
    food consumption patterns and dietary
    recommendations in the US.” Environment
    Systems and Decisions (2015)
  • “The importance of reduced meat and dairy
    consumption for meeting stringent climate
    change targets. Climatic Change (2014).
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020
    Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
    and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Scientific
    Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines