NSAC's Blog

Sustainability and Diet – A Linkage Whose Time Has Come

March 6, 2015

This guest post is by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) policy intern for the spring term, Katie Merritt. Katie is currently a graduate student in Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University and holds a BA from the University of Colorado in Psychology and Neuroscience, Integrative Physiology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. We welcome her point of view piece and thank her for her exceptional service to the organization these past few months.

Since the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report was released last week, controversy has erupted over the DGAC recommendations for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015. The controversies are many, but the loudest has been whether the dietary guidelines should take sustainability into account. That issues has come up in congressional hearings the past two weeks and was the subject of a congressional letter a few days ago.

While NSAC does not historically work on dietary guidelines and policy issues, as a the current NSAC policy intern I have been watching the recent developments with interest and alarm. As a student at the George Washington University studying Environmental and Occupation Health within the Milken Institute School of Public Health, I have been closely following the DGAC’s progress. Last summer, I was charged with helping former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan plan a symposium on the dietary guidelines in regard to sustainability as part of her new role as Executive Director of GWU’s Sustainability Institute. The event, titled “A Sustainable Plate”, took place in mid-November 2014.

While a large portion of the event was devoted to discussing the science behind the recommendations, two early panels discussed the potential to “break the mold” of the Dietary Guidelines in order to get America’s health back on track and solve the current obesity epidemic — where the leading causes of mortality are considered highly preventable.

One panel, “Nuts and Bolts” featured Evelyn Crayton, current President of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics alongside Robert Post, former leader of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Together they discussed how the Dietary Guidelines have changed historically and the potential for it to be re-imagined today to meet current needs — recommendations that work for everyone and are cost-, socially-, and culturally-appropriate. Limiting the DGAC to systematic literature reviews of peer-reviewed nutrition science, for example, may be eliminating DGAC’s ability to recognize social and cultural factors that contribute to eating behaviors.

The second panel, World on a Plate, featured Carlos Monterio of Brazil and Rianne Weggemans of the Netherlands to speak about how their national Dietary Guidelines address sustainability. Nutritionally, their recommendations do not veer far from the DGAC conclusions, suggesting that a minimally processed diet rich in fruits and vegetables is both healthier for people and better for the environment than “ultra-processed” (i.e., ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat) foods low in nutrients and high in sugar and saturated fat.

One point of departure between America and Brazil’s approach are their definitions of sustainable diets. While the DGAC focused on life-cycle assessments that calculate outputs (e.g., carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases) of different diets (i.e., current diet versus more plant-based diets), Brazil includes choices between farming systems and the rights of farmers. In conducting a more in-depth comparison between the United States’ and Brazil’s dietary guidelines, one can’t help but appreciate the latter as an innovative approach to defining a healthy diet.

While 70 percent of the diet in Brazil’s population is still low- or unprocessed foods, this number is declining as global markets expand, increasing availability to processed foods. In order to stop this trend, new dietary guidance was released in 2014 (updating a 2006 version) as the Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population. The rationale is not that these foods are necessarily bad to consume, but that their consumption usually displaces healthier meals.

In general, Brazil’s recommendations are based around five guiding principles:

  • Diet is more than intake of nutrients
  • Sound dietary  recommendations are tuned to changes in food supplies and population health patterns
  • Healthy diets derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems
  • Different sources of knowledge inform sound dietary advice
  • Dietary guidelines should enlarge people’s choice of and right to adequate and healthy diets.

Several of these guiding principles starkly contrast the US process. For instance, our guidelines focus nearly exclusively on nutrients, while ignoring food as a whole. Furthermore, in contrast to America’s obsession with dietary fads, Brazil speaks to the fact that how you eat matters just as much as what you eat.

Several of the ten Brazilian Guidelines have to do with eating behaviors rather than food themselves. Recommendations include eating regular meals in appropriate environments, paying attention, and eating in company whenever possible, as well as planning your time to give meals and eating proper time and space. Additionally, they suggest individuals develop, practice, share, and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

They also touch on buying practices and advise Brazilians to buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods and avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption; when eating out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Furthermore, they warn to be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products and avoid fast food chains.

Brazil acknowledges that traditional nutrition science is fairly reductionist; that is, focused on the isolation of individual nutrients. This traditional strategy to understand what is good for you contributes to the media’s portrayal of the back-and-forth confusion of nutrition science as we know it today.

However, the body of evidence today supports the notion that the beneficial health effects from diets are due to the interplay of the hundreds of plant compounds, not from any one in particular. Brazil takes this further, considering a meal-approach over beyond individual foods to emphasize the importance of a balanced meal.

Moreover, instead of the standard American food groups, Brazil categorizes their types of food into four categories: natural or minimally processed foods, naturally derived seasonings and oils (e.g., sugar and salt), processed foods, and ultra-processed foods. Rather than suggesting a number of servings from each group, a challenging concept when glancing over your plate, Brazil simplifies their recommendations into one golden rule, “always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods.” In practice, this makes the Brazilian Guidelines a colorful book filled with images depicting what varying ways to construct a nutritious meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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Amidst all of the current controversy it may be easy to think this approach has limited feasibility in the United States. Yes, our current system is too rigid in scope. Yes, portions of the industry are using their political clout to attempt to prevent USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from mentioning sustainability. However, considering the obesity rate has not declined despite years of reductionist advise, it might be time to start re-imagining the DGAC process.

It may be until the next round of updating the dietary guidelines until we fully get to where we need to be, but hopefully significant progress will be made in the current round as USDA and HHS use the DGAC input to come up with the next iteration of the dietary guidelines later this year.

Categories: General Interest, Nutrition & Food Access

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