As has been expected, committee recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans will set off contentious debate over their warnings about meat and added sugars, their recommendations that eggs and coffee are OK and that the environmental impact of food should be considered when choosing foods.
Plant-based foods, then, scored high on two counts -- for general health and for environmental impact – when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) on Feb. 19 made public its nonbinding recommendations to the USDA and Dept. of Health and Human Services (which includes the FDA), which will together write the final Dietary Guidelines by the end of this year.
"The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains," the summary stated.
"Vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes. Whole grains were identified slightly less consistently compared to vegetables and fruits, but were identified in every conclusion with moderate to strong evidence."
The advisory committee, composed entirely of academics, met publicly throughout 2014. It found that several nutrients are underconsumed: vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and potassium. For adolescent and premenopausal females, iron also is a shortfall nutrient.
It also cited research that dietary cholesterol has a minimal effect on serum cholesterol and heart disease and recommended that the government agencies abandon a decades-old recommendation that Americans limit their intake of eggs and other sources of cholesterol.
The committee seemed to be hinting at inclusion of environmental sustainability throughout the hearing process, and many critics jumped on that connection as irrelevant for diet. To be fair, the subject of sustainability doesn't come up till the end of the recommendations, but it is there:
"A sustainable diet ensures … access for both the current population and future generations," the report says. And:
"The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet. This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population. Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns. Of note is that no food groups need to be eliminated completely to improve sustainability outcomes over the current status."
A moderate amount of seafood is an important component of two of three of these dietary patterns, and has demonstrated health benefits, the DGAC concluded. The committee took no stand on the dangers of highly caffeinated energy drinks nor on non-nutritive sweetener aspartame, both of which were mentioned in the report.
"Now that the advisory committee has completed its recommendations, HHS and USDA will review this advisory report, along with comments from the public -- including other experts -- and input from other federal agencies as we begin the process of updating the guidelines," said USDA and HHS officials.
"The public is encouraged to view the independent advisory group's report and provide written comments at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov for a period of 45 days after publication in the Federal Register," USDA and HHS invited. "The public will also have an opportunity to offer oral comments at a public meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 24. Those interested in providing oral comments at the March 24 public meeting can register at www.DietaryGuidelines.gov. Capacity is limited, so participants will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis."
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans was first published in 1980. Beginning in 1990, Congress mandated that HHS and USDA release a new edition at least every five years. The Dietary Guidelines contain the latest, science-based nutrition recommendations for the general public with the goal of preventing disease and promoting healthy, active lifestyles. It is written for and used primarily by nutrition and health professionals, policy makers and educators, and is the foundation for federal nutrition efforts, including education initiatives and food assistance programs.