Eat more veggies, fruits, beans, and grains; cut back on animal products. It’s hard to believe that such simple advice could spur fiery debate, but the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s main recommendation has done just that. So far, individuals and advocacy groups have submitted over 4,000 comments on the committee’s report to the federal government, and thousands more will roll in as the May 8 deadline approaches. Unfortunately, some voices are louder than others.
The pork industry thinks Americans should eat more pork. The dairy industry wants a milk mustache over every upper lip. The beef industry says we should beef up our meals. The poultry industry is deeply concerned that Americans aren’t meeting our daily nugget needs. The egg industry thinks we could all use an extra omelet. Only the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which receives huge cash payments from a variety of food corporations, has nothing to say in particular—just that all foods can be part of a healthful diet.
The process of creating new guidelines about what Americans should eat teaches us more about Big Ag’s appetite for profits than it does about nutrition. Because the final guidelines will affect major national policies from food stamps to the school lunch program, special interest groups are putting their full weight behind the push to pile meat, eggs, and dairy products high on Americans’ plates.
Their grumbles, though loud, do not represent what most Americans want—nor what we need to improve our health. Over the past few years, average meat consumption in America has plummeted by more than 12 percent. One in 10 millennials is vegetarian or vegan, and a third of all Americans say they are trying to limit their meat intake. Plant-based foods are crowding out meat and dairy products on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves, and Bill Gates and other major investors are funneling cash into promising start-ups producing vegetarian meats. For many Americans, the steak-and-potatoes, country-fried-chicken Standard American Diet is already a thing of the past.
And for good reason. Despite these promising trends, poor diet is still the leading risk factor for death in America, and meat consumption is a major culprit. Studies show that those who cut back on animal products cut their risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer—while increasing their energy, weight loss, and lifespan. In other words, the more meat we replace with whole, plant-based foods, the healthier we’ll be.
In a desperate attempt to renew dwindling consumer interest in its products and to warp this sound science, Big Ag has taken a page from Big Tobacco’s book. The meat and dairy industry uses deceptive marketing tactics and funds its own health “research”—with predictable results. A review of studies funded by the US Dairy Council, for instance, revealed that not a single study had an unfavorable conclusion about the health impacts of milk. In fact, these studies were even more biased than those funded by notoriously sneaky drug companies. New “Milk Life” ads boast about dairy’s “high-quality protein,” despite the fact that most Americans get way too much protein—and despite solid evidence that the protein in dairy (and all animal products) is strongly linked to increased cancer risk. The protein found in plant foods like beans and grains is not.
The same last-ditch schemes are employed by what I call the Animal Protein Party: the corporate lobbyists who try to salvage profits via politics in a consumer climate that gets more veggie-friendly by the day. These industry representatives have secured billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to produce and market the very foods that make us sick. They have even thwarted past Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees’ efforts to help Americans eat healthier.
But not this time. The 2015 Committee’s advice to cut back on animal products is based on unbiased science and the counsel of experts who have nothing to gain but a healthier community. It is telling that nearly every spokesperson not representing the meat, dairy, egg, and junk food industries who provided oral comments on the committee’s report wholeheartedly embraced this recommendation.
The fact is that Americans get it. We’re already eating less meat, and many of us are trying to cut back even further. A diet richer in vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains—and lower in animal products—is what our country needs and wants. And it’s not so controversial after all.
Hever, known as “The Plant-Based Dietitian,” has hosted television show, What Would Julieanna Do?, authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition and The Vegiterranean Diet, and contributed to two of the books in the bestselling Forks Over Knives series. She is also the food trends specialist for international nonprofit Mercy For Animals.