The News Dietary Guidelines Have A Blind Spot

The Lempert Report
October 07, 2020

Most governments’ dietary recommendations are neither sufficiently healthy nor sustainable

According to a report in the medical research journal the British Medical Journal, most governments’ dietary recommendations are neither sufficiently healthy nor sustainable according to

Researchers from Oxford, Harvard, Tufts, and Adelaide Universities collated data from all available dietary guidelines, covering 85 of the world’s countries. They looked for specific language on what people should eat — words like “eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day” — and then used climate and epidemiological models to predict what would happen if the whole world ate that way.

What they found was that 95 percent of the world’s dietary guidelines are incompatible with at least one of the goals set by international climate and public health agreements like the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Only 56 of the 85 countries’ guidelines (66 percent) were on track to meet the UN’s goal of reducing deaths from noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer by one-third by 2030, relative to 2010 numbers.

After considering country- and crop-specific impacts for greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and fertilizer application, they found that 87 percent of the countries’ dietary guidelines weren’t compatible with emissions pathways to limit global warming to below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

Between 67 and 89 percent failed to meet other international environmental goals like limiting the use of fresh water or nitrogen fertilizer. Only two countries — Indonesia and Sierra Leone — gave recommendations that lined up with all of the environmental targets.

Sheila Fleischhacker, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former nutrition advisor at the USDA, says that the problem is that most national dietary guidelines are designed to consider nutrition alone, without factoring in the social and environmental consequences of what we eat. But you can’t have a conversation about the food world without talking about sustainability she says.

The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health published a planetary health diet last year -  a provocative proposal to provide everyone on earth with adequate nutrition while not exceeding “planetary boundaries.” Citing climate concerns, its recommendations include a 50 percent reduction in global red meat consumption by 2050 and found that if this diet were uniformly adopted around the world, it could reduce premature mortality by one-third compared to if everyone obeyed countries’ current national guidelines. Plus, it would provide more than three times greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, along with other environmental benefits —enough to meet all the international health and sustainability targets considered in the study.