New Dietary Guidelines: Cut Back on Meat to Help the Environment

Food System
Feb 25th, 2015 | By Jeremy Kranowitz

Last week brought big food news affecting everything on our dining room table, from eggs and coffee at breakfast to steaks at dinner. It came in the form of the latest recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) for amounts of various foods that Americans should eat.

The DGAC revises its recommendations every five years based on ever-evolving science about health outcomes from eating different types of foods. While the guidelines are indeed just suggestions for the public to follow, they set the trend toward what we should be eating and what we should be avoiding. They also heavily influence the food that is served in public schools to millions of school children. I’ve grouped the recommendations into three categories:

Not Terribly Surprising: The committee suggests that we reduce salt and sugar consumption, consume more nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and potassium, and eat more fiber.

Mildly Surprising: The Committee suggests actually consuming more eggs and coffee. Drinking three to five cups of coffee per day is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and is correlated with a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease. Regarding fats, the latest evidence suggests that we need not worry about dietary cholesterol as much; instead of limiting things like eggs and shrimp, we should instead cut down on food high in saturated fat like cheese and fatty cuts of meat.

Very Surprising: The big shock is that the committee suggested, for the first time, that when we choose what to eat, we also consider the environmental impacts of that food. “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 than is the current average U.S. diet,” the report says.

Our take: As we have often noted at Sustainable America, it takes a lot of resources to bring the average hamburger to our plate. By some estimates, the amount of water needed to serve up a quarter-pound hamburger at a fast food restaurant is equal to a 90-minute shower. In addition, it is well documented that cattle and other ruminants are responsible for 25% of all methane emissions in the U.S., and managing their manure is another 9% of the total. Methane is a greenhouse gas that has more than 20 times the impact of carbon dioxide on climate change.

At Sustainable America, we agree that it is important to take the environment into consideration when we choose what to eat. One of our organization’s goals is to increase food availability by 50 percent over the next 20 years to ensure a sustainable food future. If we want to reach that goal, we need to use our resources wisely. Replacing some resource-intensive beef- or pork-centric meals with chicken, fish or vegetarian meals is one way to do that. With awareness of the issues, and some forethought, we can all achieve a laudable goal of making sure everyone has enough healthy, nutritious, and delicious food to eat.

If you do eat beef, think about buying sustainably raised beef, which has less impact on the environment than beef produced from feedlots. Free-range, grass-fed beef requires very little excess feed, therefore using less fertilizers and oil products. Grazing also helps with the natural tillage of the land, which alleviates storm runoff in drought-prone areas.

Individuals aren’t the only ones who can help lessen the environmental impact of food production; entrepreneurs are also looking at these issues. Some are trying to figure out how to reduce methane emissions from cattle and sheep by changing their diets, others, like Quasar Energy Group in Ohio, is turning all that manure into energy!

Public awareness of the latest science combined with entrepreneurial vision to make the market more efficient will help us achieve a more sustainable America.

Jeremy Kranowitz
Executive Director

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Tagged: Jeremy Kranowitz, food system, sustainable food, sustainable meat, meat production, food, environment, Dietary Guidelines, Food & Farms

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