Eating a meat-centric diet is not only bad for our health, it is bad for the health of the planet, according to the recent report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.

The finding – while widely anticipated – marks the first time the top nutrition panel has formally acknowledged the environmental impact of what we eat.

Not surprisingly, vegetarians, public health groups, environmental organizations and animal advocates have cheered the report. The meat industry has condemned it. After the public comment period closes May 8, it will be up to the federal government to draft the 2015 guidelines.

In the past, the final guidelines have closely followed the report’s recommendations, but with intense lobbying from both sides it remains uncertain whether this year’s final guidelines will consider the environmental footprint of food.

In mid-February the prestigious 14-member committee delivered its report to the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Health and Human Services Department, and declared the foods that are best for us also tend to be best for the planet.

The 571-page report states 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.”

In particular, the report said an “organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources” and beef has the greatest impact.

The report is written every five years; this year’s recommends three plant-heavy dietary patterns – vegetarian, Mediterranean and an upgraded American-style diet, which contains more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less red meat, refined sugars and white flour than current American diets.

So why all the fuss? Does anyone actually follow government advice about what to eat?

While the jury’s out on that last question, the guidelines written from this report are important because they serve as the basis for federal nutrition policy governing programs including school lunch, military rations and food assistance for mothers with young children.

At a recent public hearing on the report held at the National Institute of Health, 70 groups offered testimony. That same day a coalition of public health and environmental advocates ran full-page advertisements in the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico calling on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, to include sustainability in the final guidelines.

Cameron Wells, nutrition education director at the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, attended the NIH hearing where her boss, Dr. Neal Barnard, testified in support of linking nutrition and sustainability.

Wells said the testimony “started off very one-sided with the meat industry voice being very clear. But as we moved on (we heard from) more plant-based advocates.”

Wells was troubled by the testimony from meat industry officials and observed, “clearly their interest is monetary and not your uncle with heart disease or your aunt with diabetes.”

The agriculture policy journal Agri-Pulse reported, “Livestock and meat groups argued that the nutrition committee is overstepping its boundaries by delving into an environmental issue, but environmental groups said the committee had the science to back up a push for more sustainability considerations in the guidelines.”

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association argues that when Americans eat less red meat, they eat more processed snack foods instead, and the National Pork Producers Council says children need to eat meat because it’s filling and “preserves lean muscle mass.”

Dr. David Katz, who founded Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, wrote an opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report titled “Don’t Eat Your Children’s Food” in which he examined why the guidelines should consider sustainability.

“Once you know that dietary patterns will influence whether or not there is enough food and water to go around, ignoring that issue while generating ‘dietary guidelines,'” Katz wrote, “would be like offering tips for safe swimming at the beach that fail to mention the notorious riptides, or the unusual number of hungry sharks nearby.”

Republican members of Congress from agricultural districts have formally complained about the report, and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack (a Democrat and former Iowa governor) told the Senate Appropriations Committee that he plans to keep the final guidelines tightly focused on nutrition.

After the public’s chance to comment ends, interest groups will continue their efforts to influence the debate. “There are certainly activities that continue beyond May 8,” Wells said. “There’s lobbying and work going on behind the scenes.”

The federal government is scheduled to release the final guidelines by the end of the year.

Despite the lobbying against the report, Wells remains optimistic the environmental footprint of food will be considered in the final guidelines.

“I do think there is a very strong likelihood that it will be maintained in the guidelines,” Wells said. “Especially since it is so clearly written in the recommendations. To ignore that would be irresponsible.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

TO COMMENT on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines before the public comment period ends on May 8, visit

Grilled Eggplant Nicoise Sandwich

According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, which developed this recipe, this simple Mediterranean sandwich when paired with a chopped vegetable salad and fruit kabobs is an example of a vegetarian meal with a small environmental footprint. Plan ahead, as the eggplant needs to marinate in lemon and then herbs for a total of 2 hours before you grill it.

Serves 4

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1 large eggplant, sliced into thick slabs

Juice of 4 lemons (about ½ cup)

¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon dried lavender

½ teaspoon saffron

4 large slices French or sourdough bread, toasted

1 small fennel bulb, sliced

2 tomatoes, sliced

¼ cup sliced pitted Niçoise or green olives

Rub each slab of eggplant with 1 smashed garlic clove, then set the garlic cloves aside. Place the eggplant in a shallow bowl and pour the lemon juice over it. Add enough water to submerge the eggplant. Allow the eggplant to marinate for at least 1 hour, then drain and place it in a shallow dish. Add the reserved garlic, and the pepper, lavender and saffron and let it sit for another 1 hour.

Place the eggplant directly on a grill over medium heat and cook until it is soft on both sides but not charred. Place a grilled slab of eggplant on a slice of bread and top with a couple slices of fennel and tomatoes and about 1 tablespoon sliced olives. Repeat until you’ve made 4 open-faced sandwiches.

Per serving (1 sandwich): 154 calories, 7g protein, 35g carbohydrate, 9g sugar, 2 g total fat, 9% calories from fat, 10g fiber, 478mg sodium


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