Health officials call for less meat, more plants in dietary guidelines

Health officials call for less meat, more plants in dietary guidelines
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More than 700 doctors, nutritionists, nurses and public health professionals are calling on the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to follow the recommendations of a federally appointed panel and tell Americans to eat less meat because it’s healthier for them — and the environment.

In a letter to the secretaries of the USDA and HHS, Harvard’s Department of Nutrition Chair Walter Willet and 700 other health professionals endorsed the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s contentious recommendation to reduce consumption of animal-based foods and shift toward a more plant-based diet.

“Three of the four leading causes of preventable death, heart disease, cancer, and stroke — are diet related,” they said in the letter.  “Heavy meat consumption, especially red and processed meat, is associated with increased risks of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, while plant-based diets are associated with decreased risks of all three.”

Chronic, preventable diseases are estimated to account for 75 percent of all healthcare costs. In 2010, heart disease and stroke alone accounted for an estimated $315.4 billion.

The USDA and HHS will use the committee’s report and recommendations, along with public comments, to update dietary guidelines for Americans due out later this year.

The panel's decision, however, to incorporate environmental factors into the guidelines for the first time has created a public dispute between environmental groups and the meat industry, which contends the committee is neither required nor equipped to recommend people eat less meat because it’s better for the planet. 

In a statement, Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, said sustainability should be addressed in the dietary guidelines for the sake of future generations.

“If, in an age when we know that food and water shortages are clear and present dangers, we choose to ignore them in our dietary guidelines, then these are not dietary guidelines for Americans,” he said. “They are, instead, dietary guidelines for the current generation of American adults, and at the obvious expense of all subsequent generations of American, and planetary, adults including, of course, our children.”