By Kristen Johnsen
| Every five years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, or DGAC, releases a new set of comprehensive dietary recommendations through the United States Department of Agriculture. The committee is comprised of experts in various fields and sub-teams, who together, scrutinize the latest scientific and medical findings and use them to draft dietary recommendations. These recommendations play an important role in shaping food consumption nationally. The findings become guidelines for planning the meals for federal employees and for drafting policy. Federal school lunch programs and nursing home nutritional requirements, for example, are based upon the core nutritional requirements in the publication. Additionally, anyone who takes a health class in a public junior high school is taught according to these recommendations, thus shaping a new generation’s perception of healthy eating. These dietary recommendations help shape the consumption patterns of millions.
While the official DGAC website states that its recommendations are rooted in science, the truth is that, historically speaking, these recommendations have reflected the interests of big names in agriculture and dairy. Federal nutrition recommendations have to make it through many rounds of scrutiny and through armies of lobbyists at every step of the process.
If you think back to your elementary school days, I am sure you have at least one memory of being told about the benefits of milk and meat. Your mom probably made you drink all of your milk before leaving the dinner table. Why did your parents care so much? Was your mom simply falling mercy to milk advertisements? While it is true that milk has a long history of incredible advertising campaigns, perhaps we should be thanking their lobbyists. Lobbyists for meat and dairy have undeniably played a role in drafting the food pyramid. Think I am overstating it? In 1991 cattle and milk lobbyists strong-armed the Department of Agriculture into withdrawing one year’s pyramid because it recommended too few servings of milk and red meat than their corporations liked.
Important actors in the cattle and dairy industries also openly funded studies about the nutritional benefits of both- studies which were looked at and cited by governmental nutritional recommendations for half a century. In sum, we can thank powerful milk and meat corporations for a legacy of nutritional recommendations overstating the importance of milk and red meat in the diet.
Given Americans’ cultural affinity for meat and milk, these nutritional recommendations were not hard to swallow; they reinforced our existing cultural practices. Not unlike many of our overconsumption patterns in the United States, this pattern is not healthy on a personal level, and it is also not healthy for the planet. (Want to learn more about why? Check out this article from National Geographic)
It is not difficult to find evidence of the negative health results of overconsuming red meat and milk . It is true that both have nutritional value, but neither are the unique source of healthy fat, calcium, vitamins, or protein. In fact, neither are the most nutrient dense provider of any of those benefits. Most healthcare professionals recommend only drinking low-fat milk and in small quantities. With regards to red meat, given its connection heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity, many in the health industry actually recommend you steer clear altogether, and if you must consume, only to eat very lean cuts.
The overconsumption of meat and dairy has also had extremely detrimental effects on the environment. Cattle consume an enormous amount of water. A dairy cow, for example, consumes twenty gallons a day on average. This is water, that, as it turns out, we are really going to be needing, given worldwide droughts. Cattle and dairy cows also contaminate clean air and negatively contribute to the CO2 problem more severely than even cars do . They also are terribly energy inefficient- they take a lot of corn to feed, enough corn to feed millions of people, and the resultant meat of one cow only feeds one family for a couple months. Even grass-fed, grazing cows, which are often preferred by yuppie foodies, waste farmable land and trample ecosystems.
This year the DGAC has done something bold. They have decided that sustainable eating is an imperative. They have added to their cocktail of experts a subgroup of environmental scientists. The DGAC is finally recognizing that human health goals include making choices which leave the planet able to produce food in the future. They have made a concerted effort to recommend the version of a nutritional components which have the least ecological impact. The result has been a substantial attack on the cattle and diary industries. The first draft of recommendations suggests cutting out red meat and limiting milk intake.
While some critiques may state that it is not enough, I suggest that it is an enormous step forward. As this first draft passes through government offices to publication, let’s hope that it doesn’t get soft on the issue. The planet needs bold action.