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Will plant-based dietary recommendation spur meaningful change?

A recent recommendation of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) brought hope by acknowledging some negative environmental and health impacts of the typical American diet. However, as a long-time researcher and contributor to food and health policy, I am still wondering if this is actually a step forward for health and the environment or just another dead end.

I am referring to the 2015 DGAC recommendation that “a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average U.S. diet.”

{mosads}I have followed the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee closely for 35 years. I have observed the growing power delegated to the DGAC to make key changes that could improve the health of our nation.

It is welcome news that this report notes the serious impact of animal-based food consumption on several major environmental issues. This creates another opportunity for Americans to pause before ordering a quarter pounder, which requires hundreds to thousands of gallons of water to produce. However, simply stating words is not enough without calling for research and policies that show how effective diet truly can be. This new 5-year report, like its predecessors, once again fails to acknowledge the ability of a whole plant-based food (WFPB) lifestyle not only to prevent serious diseases that kill us before our time, but also to reverse (i.e., treat) many of these diseases. This omission is serious, especially considering the published research of Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dean Ornish, John McDougall and Neal Barnard as well other researchers cited in The China Study.

A WFPB diet has optimal amounts of nutrients including protein and fat and is rich in disease-inhibiting natural complex carbohydrates and antioxidants. Impressive evidence now shows that, conservatively, well over half of the deaths caused by these diseases can be prevented, even successfully treated by this dietary lifestyle. Also, health care costs can be cut in half (at least). By ignoring this information, I assert that this new report deflects interest away from a powerful nutritional effect that dwarfs any other medical interventions. The DGAC fails to encourage research on the benefits of this dietary lifestyle, either to support it or, even more importantly from their perspective, to deny it. In addition, including the words ‘plant-based’ in the report has little or no meaning if the breadth and depth of the effects associated with this dietary lifestyle are not acknowledged or explained by the report.

As a scientist, educator and a citizen, I urge that the current process of developing public nutrition information should, at a minimum, be substantially restructured. In no way should ‘educating’ the public be controlled by a government agency (the USDA) that is beholden to the livestock industry. The USDA has significant control over what the public gets to know, and the USDA is influenced by industry. How can this committee process benefit the health of the people when it is limited in this way?

Consider the impact if more resources were allotted to 1) develop nutrition education as part of medical school curricula, 2) develop reimbursement procedures for primary care physicians using this nutrition strategy, 3) establish a new National Institute for Nutrition (to join its 27 companion NIH institutes) which will sponsor research to assess the efficacy of a whole food, plant-based diet, 4) suspend all food subsidy programs that primarily support food producers (instead of consumers), and redirect these resources into a health safety net for individuals and families who are unable to secure adequate nutrition, and 5) create a food and nutrition advisory council that is publicly financed and serves consumer interests beyond the reach of corporate financial interests.

It is now time to begin resolving runaway problems like environmental degradation, excessive health care costs and unnecessary personal suffering of preventable diseases. It is time to minimize corporate influences that have stifled objective scientific inquiry on the matter of food and human health. Let the consumer know the evidence so that they can make decisions in their own best interest. I encourage you to visit to respond to the public comment I submitted to the 2015 DGAC. 

Campbell is a professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, co-author of the bestselling book The China Study (2005), and founder of the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies


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