The Inside View

Sustainability on the dietary plate: A huge milestone

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It used to be that nutritionists were in one silo, sustainability experts in another. Never the twain shall meet.

That’s all changing in a big first. The technical report from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group tasked with drafting the federal nutrition guidelines, just came out for public comment. Besides addressing calories, sugars, fats and sodium, Chapter Five covers a whole new territory for the nation’s road map for healthy eating, including what it states as a “sustainable diet.”

Let’s look at the definition, which is closely linked to food security.

  • Sustainable diets: Sustainable diets are a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations"
  • "Food security: Food security exists when all people now, and in the future, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”

Miriam Nelson, a member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council, explained to me recently how a sustainable diet approach evolved from concerns about food security. Since the dietary guidelines were first developed in 1980, having access to safe, affordable, quality food has been a focus.

“So food security is about tomorrow as well, including sustainable supply chains,” said Nelson, associate dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “A sustainable diet is essential and a key link to food security.”

I first came to know Nelson in the early 2000s, when I recruited her to participate in McDonald’s newly created Global Advisory Council, advising on menu choices, portion sizes and educating customers. She was impressive with her inquisitive mind, also her practicality. I remember in the GAC meeting, Nelson asking McDonald’s CEO at the time about the supersize option for McDonald’s french fries. It stirred much more internal discussion that eventually led to eliminated the supersize option. Now Nelson is advising all Americans how best to eat healthy.

“It was an amazing process,” said Nelson. “I’m so happy for the work that we are able to do with the committee members with the Dietary Guideline. It’s been quite breath-taking, the reaction.”

Miriam Nelson, a member of the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council, and associate dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tuft
Lisa Nelson
Miriam Nelson, a member of the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council and associate dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University

The controversy

I know there is very significant thought leadership when the reaction on all sides is plentiful and potent. Judging by the opposing dialogues, the sustainable diet evolution is quite a doozy.

The meat industry is wary of this. There are sections calling for eating less meat. Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute, also responded by saying that “the Committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise. It’s akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care.”

Are these dietary guidelines going too far? I think not. Just the opposite. It’s about time sustainability is addressed and integrated more officially into the food culture.

The DGAC cites many scientific sources, many from Europe. “We focused squarely on the confluence of a healthy diet and a healthy pattern of eating with sustainability,” said Nelson. “We found 15 high-quality studies showing this linkage. Every single study showed that a diet that is health promoting is also more sustainable.”

But beside science, the reality is this work is simply catching up to the consumer. The biggest trend we are witnessing in food over the past five to seven years is that consumers deeply care about where their food comes from, how it is sourced, what is in it, and how it is processed. As a whole, the new foodie consumer wants to feel “good” about the food they eat. Good is defined not just by calories, but by its carbon footprint, too.

Consumers, for their part, don’t put “nutrition” in one bucket and the sourcing practices in another. Too many organizations and food companies are not recognizing this trend, this new reality, and continue to manage them as delinked initiatives.

When I read the report, I did not see a demonization of beef, and neither did Nelson, although the report does discuss eating less meat. Nelson’s a meat eater and raises animals. As she explained to me, meat is still included in the dietary guidelines. “We are not telling people to be vegans. That is not the point. There is a whole wide range of ways people can eat healthy.”

This includes eating beef and pork — and most food choices — but not in too large portions.

 “I have cows in my back yard,” Nelson said. “We have a quarter of a beef in our freezer, as well as a lamb and half a pig. My family has a farm. I was a midwife to a little calf this past fall. We need grazing animals as they are important for the ecosystem. But Americans eat too much meat. We need to cut down. Portions are three times what they should be.”

How to respond

Should the meat industry dig in and fight this? I admire the beef and pork ranchers and producers. They have provided Americans an amazingly productive, safe and affordable food system — that also features sustainability advances. My advice to this very proud network of hard working stewards of the land and animals, who largely go unappreciated, is to embrace the concept of a sustainable diet. Don’t bunker down.

Continue to show how sustainable beef, pork, chicken and fish can improve food security’s linkages to a sustainable supply chain. Less can be more. Let’s face it. We’ll continue eating meat. Why not make us feel better about the food we eat through environmental and animal welfare stewardship?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services will review all the changes to the dietary guidelines, then finalize and release them by the end of 2015. If the input from the DGAC sticks, historians will look back to this year as the year sustainable food went mainstream.

“It is about balance, the science, health promotion and ecosystem promotion, and the fact that can be one in the same,” said Nelson. “That’s where we should be getting to."