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Dietary-Environmental Link Stirs Guideline Controversy

Dietary-Environmental Link Stirs Guideline Controversy

By Michael Cipriano - November 20, 2014

After the United States topped a list of the world’s fattest countries earlier this year, the government-appointed Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is taking steps that could effectively fight back in 2015, experts say.

With more than one-third -- 34.9 percent -- of Americans considered obese, the DGAC is believed to be pushing for the inclusion of specific policy recommendations in its 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a step that past committees have never taken.

The guidelines are jointly issued and updated every five years by the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the USDA’s website, the guidelines “provide authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.”

The DGAC, which has helped set the standards for well-known dietary models such as the food pyramid and the dinner plate, consists of 15 experts in the fields of nutrition and health. They review the current scientific evidence and use their expertise to recommend ways to restructure the guidelines.

But DGAC plans to go beyond this role and make specific legislative recommendations, said a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“There is a lot of suggestive language in 2010 guidelines, but nothing that must be taken authoritatively,” noted Joy Dubost, herself a registered dietician.

Although USDA has not publicly stated any specific legislative changes it might call for -- nor did it respond to a request from RCP for comment -- Dubost suspects the proposals may be related to sugar-sweetened beverages and could involve a soda tax or ban. Her belief stems from the discussions at previous committee meetings this year that added sugar should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calorie intake.

What’s more, DGAC is also looking into a “sustainability” diet for the first time, Dubost says. The idea of a sustainable diet involves eating less meat and dairy products and shifting toward a plant-based diet in order to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.

“That’s the new wave, making recommendations for a nutritional food system that involves a plant-based diet,” Dubost said. “No other committee has done that.”

The process of raising animals, transporting them, killing them, processing the meat, etc. requires high energy usage, thus increasing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

A study by scientists at the University of Minnesota and published in the journal Nature found that diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats increase such gases in the atmosphere, and also increase the incidence of diseases such as type II diabetes, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

“Alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits could, if widely adopted, reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions, and help prevent such diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases,” the study’s authors assert. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet-environment-health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance.”

The study says that “there would be no net increase in food production emissions” if plant-based diets became the norm.

Conservative critics, however, have consistently stated their opposition to the government imposing a sustainable diet.

The House Appropriations Committee instructed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to make sure the committee does not “pursue an environmental agenda.”

Capital Research Center, a conservative non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., published a five-page report in September titled “Pyramid Scheme: Meet the ‘green’ radicals who want to plan your menu.” The report contends that the advisory committee is stacked with “radical ‘green’ activists” who are placing “sustainability and a push towards veganism (no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy) over sound nutrition principles.”

The report further asserts that “if the DGAC decides to discourage meat consumption -- based on personal ideals and not science -- children, soldiers, and millions of other Americans could end up malnourished.”

It also slams any legislative action that would ban or regulate added sugar and large sodas as “the goal of a cartoon villain in a bad children’s movie.”

“While obesity is a significant concern with regard to people’s private health, such coercive, ideological modification of private behavior unrelated to public health is outside the Constitutional power of the federal government,” the report reads.

Although DGAC has not released any specifics to the public, the committee has so far held six public meetings, with a seventh and final one scheduled for Dec. 14 before it submits its report to the USAD and HHS secretaries. The report will be made available for public comment sometime this winter; USDA and HHS will then release the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans in the fall of 2015.

Michael Cipriano

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