Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
Summer 2015 Vol. 9, Issue 1
Dietary Fat & Heart Disease Debate Commands New Attention

Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Urges More Fruits and Vegetables, Less Meat

About half of American adults, or 117 million people, have one or more preventable chronic diseases related to poor diet and lack of physical activity, and about two-thirds, or 155 million of the same demographic, are overweight or obese. Guided by these facts, in February 2015, the nation’s top scientific panel on nutrition released an update on healthy nutrition and provided food-based recommendations that emphasize higher consumption of vegetables and fruits, and lower consumption of red and processed meat.

The recommendations are the scientific basis of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is updated and published every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and which influences federal food and nutrition policy, as well as education initiatives such as the school lunch program.

Source: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/img/Figure-B21-color.png

If heeded, these latest recommendations mean a significant diet shift for many Americans. They also offer some help for the environment, as the panel placed a premium on sustainability and environmental impact during its review, a new provision that acknowledges a connection between the physical well-being of humans and the health, and future, of the planet.

Towards a Healthful Diet
Focusing on a healthful diet rather than the health benefits of individual nutrients, the advice in Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015 is intended to help Americans attain and maintain a healthy weight, promote health and prevent disease in the face of two additional nutrition-related health issues. These include suboptimal dietary patterns of Americans, resulting in poor health and high chronic disease risk, and food insecurity, whereby the availability of sufficiently nutritious foods is limited.

Data from the 2012 national food surveys “What We Eat in America” and the “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,” which are conducted routinely by DHHS (in partnership with USDA on the former), showed that Americans were eating inadequate amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy. At the same time, the survey statistics revealed that Americans were over-consuming refined grains, saturated fat, added sugars and sodium, based on the USDA recommended amounts. This behavior increased health risks, especially for high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (CVD), overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

Given a review of this data and other existing research, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee identified three dietary patterns – the Healthy U.S.-style, the Healthy Mediterranean-style and the Healthy Vegetarian – that are associated with health benefits, such as lower rates of heart disease and stroke, and recommended them as models of healthy dietary patterns (see chart). In their 2015 scientific report, the committee explained, “A healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts; moderate in alcohol; lower in red and processed meats, and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” Emphasizing sweeteners’ links to obesity and chronic disease, the panel recommended that added sugars be limited to no more than 10 calories a day, or two teaspoons.

Source: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/15-appendix-E3/e3-7.asp

From its analysis of food category consumption data such as burgers, sandwiches and beverages, the committee also noted that the population’s vegetable and whole grain consumption could increase, while the intake of sodium, saturated fat and refined grains would simultaneously decrease with elevated consumption of these healthier items. Likewise, they pointed out that added sugars in the diet could be lowered when limits are placed on sweets, desserts and beverage selections.

A Sustainable Diet Equals a Sustainable Environment
In considering food security and improving access to and availability of healthy food for the U.S. population, the advisory committee called for environmental policies to ensure a sustainable diet for current and future generations. Research on sustainable diets shows that diets rich in plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, are lower in calories, promote health more actively and impact the environment less than the current U.S. diet, which is meat-heavy, calorie-intensive and environment-taxing. Because the latter comprises more animal- than plant-based foods, it produces more greenhouse gas emissions, and requires more land, water and energy use.

Objections and Support
The latest scientific update of the Dietary Guidelines elicited both opposition and support. In a Washington Post article dated April 20, 2015, the North American Meat Institute objected to the recommendation that Americans cut back on meat consumption, challenging the panel’s contention that meat negatively impacts the environment. The industry group also claimed that the panel had overstepped its boundaries and expertise by including sustainability considerations.

Meanwhile, the February 20, 2015 issue of The Wall Street Journal reported that large-scale global production of animal-based food accounts for 80 percent of deforestation and 70 percent of freshwater use, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future. The news outlet went on to quote a health and food expert from the National Resources Defense Council (a nonprofit, international environmental advocacy group) as saying that the current recommendations are health-driven.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit education and advocacy group promoting safer and healthier foods, also endorsed the panel’s conclusion that a sustainable diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based fare is better than the current American diet for both the nation’s heath, and the heath of the planet.

In short, while the advisory committee’s recommendations may not be unanimously heralded, they have been widely praised in the scientific community as a step in the right direction towards mitigating the growing, costly, and deadly, effects of a poor diet and an enervated earth.


Read More:
Lead Article: Is Butter Really Back?
Also Noted: Dietary Guidelines 2015 for Individuals and Families
CECHE News: Freedom House Forum Honors Mark Palmer

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