Dietary guidelines should fight chronic disease and climate change

Dietary guidelines should fight chronic disease and climate change
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Hurricane Florence is expected to cause days of catastrophic rain and flooding across the Carolinas and beyond. While climate change doesn’t create hurricanes, it warms ocean waters, helping to increase their size and intensity. But the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans could help fight climate change — and heart disease, diabetes, and obesity — by recommending a plant-based diet as the most environmentally sustainable diet.

Last week, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services put out a call for nominations for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Let’s hope the new committee continues the 2015 committee’s efforts, which were thwarted by the meat and dairy industry — to add a section on sustainability to the guidelines.

The Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee stated, “Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, 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.”

But “sustainable” is not mentioned once in the final 144 pages of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Lobbying from meat and dairy industry groups like the Beef Checkoff and the National Dairy Council ultimately kept sustainability out of the guidelines. The North American Meat Institute wrote in its comments that “to recommend a ‘sustainable dietary pattern’ when the very definition of sustainable is still at issue does a disservice ...”

Of course, the definition of “sustainable” was not at issue in 2015—and since then even more evidence points to animal agriculture as a leading culprit in climate change. Research show that the meat industry contributes more to climate change than all forms of transportation — cars, buses, and trains — combined.

But a shift to a plant-based diet today could reduce greenhouse gases caused by food production by 70 percent by 2050. It would also save an estimated 79 million human lives and avoid 5.1 million deaths per year. Estimates for a completely vegan diet project closer to 129 million lives saved and 8.1 million deaths avoided. These projections also saw trillions of dollars saved in health care costs by 2050.

In its position paper on vegetarian diets, which my colleague Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., co-authored, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals — stated, “Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage.”

Research also shows that simply swapping beef for beans would help the United States reach targeted greenhouse gas emission reductions. With new data released this week showing that the United States will fall short by about one-third on its Paris Climate Accord targets, recommending a sustainable plant-based diet in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans could help pick up the slack.

Neal Barnard, M.D. is a clinical researcher, author and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.