American Health: New USDA Dietary Guidelines Leave Sustainability Out

photo by magnus lögdber

Just in time for those New Year’s resolutions, the USDA will release a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans (see the current guidelines here). The 100+ page document is suppose to tell Americans what to eat, and how much of it, in addition of what foods to avoid for optimal health. It’s much easier said than done, as a lot of controversy and dispute is making it difficult for Public Health Professionals responsible for updating the guidelines to finalize them before December.

The guidelines are updated every five years, bringing into consideration the latest research in Nutrition and Health Sciences. During a time when America’s dietary habits are alarmingly bad, there is a lot of pressure to make these guidelines applicable to the current American lifestyle. In the world of human Nutrition where the science and facts seem to be constantly changing and contradictory, creating a document that tells 318 million people what to eat is undoubtedly a daunting task. And apparently, a controversial one too.

The hottest controversy surrounding the guidelines at the moment? Sustainability. Whether or not the health of the environment should also be considered when creating the guidelines. The bottom line this past week has been that possible environmental factors will not be considered, and rightly so. And not because sustainability is not an issue - rather, it’s an equally big issue whose relation with food in America is still under a lot of debate. We all know that meat production raises levels of CO2 emissions - but what about the sustainability of other foods like almonds?  To produce one almond, farmers use approximately a gallon of water. But what about a head of broccoli or one orange? This LA Times article looks at almond production from another angle.

All of these confusing factors must be considered, in addition to variables like amount of food per capita for different types of food. So will adding one complicated issue to another actually help both situations? As USDA secretaries Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell told NPR : "we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs [Dietary Guidelines for Americans] are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability." Fair enough. It’s tough to argue that sorting out the details that support the purpose of these guidelines - helping Americans make better food choices -  is the first priority here. One health battle at a time.