Bringing Sustainability to MyPlate

For the first time, the advisory committee for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends including “sustainability” in the Dietary Guidelines (DG) (once known as the food pyramid, now MyPlate). The DG are jointly issued and revised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) every 5 years.1 The two departments established the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and charged it with examining the current guidelines and recommending updates. This spring, Ecology Center joined other organizations across the country to officially support the recommendations for incorporating sustainability into the finalized DG, to be released this fall.

“Sustainability” may be considered a catch phrase by some, so what does it really mean? According to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Sustainable diets are a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.” The advisory committee goes on to warn that “…if natural resources such as land, water, and energy are not conserved and managed optimally [during food production], they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” The U.S. is not alone. The report points out that countries all over the world, including Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Brazil, have recognized sustainability as an important component of nutrition policy.

The meat industry, however, opposes sustainability in Dietary Guidelines since these recommendations call for a reduction of meat consumption.2 Livestock production, an inefficient use of resources, also majorly contributes to climate change through the massive amounts of GHG-releasing waste that it produces. Additionally, large-scale animal operations often pollute local soils and waterways.3 However, the current DG already prioritize the consumption of plant-based foods, which the 2015 DG would continue to build upon.

The Ecology Center applauds our governmental leaders, who have seized this great opportunity to encourage everyday consumers to think about healthy food from a more comprehensive perspective. Truly healthy food is derived from a system which is environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. And interestingly, a diet that is healthiest for humans is also healthiest for the planet!

The efforts of the advisory committee are mirrored on a smaller scale, locally through the Ecology Center's Sustainable Food, Healthy Communities Program, which partners with food providers to incorporate sustainable food principles into their own guidelines. Our Healthy Food in Health Care program works with over 120 hospitals throughout Michigan providing education and technical assistance. Like a ripple in a pond, awareness that healthy food comes from a healthy food system spreads across thousands of hospital staff, patients, and visitors alike. The demand for local, sustainably produced foods increases, as more and more hospitals shift their purchasing habits. Accordingly, agricultural production practices become more sustainable in response to the shift in demand. This positive market effect that we see in Michigan could grow locally and throughout the country if the sustainability recommendations are incorporated into the finalized DG. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines will be the basis for all federal programs, including school lunches.

Through the Ecology Center's programs and their own initiatives, many hospitals around Michigan and the nation are serving less meat overall, often reducing the portion size served as well, and offering more vegetarian and vegan options. The health care providers then invest the cost savings in purchasing sustainably-raised meats. Imagine this happening on a large scale in hospitals, schools, and other institutions across the country.  The implementation of sustainability in the DG could have many positive impacts on improving our food system, pushing it forward to a healthier, sustainable food system, and healthier people worldwide.

1 US Dietary Guidelines
2 Civil Eats
3 Food Politics

For More Information regarding MyPlate sustainability recommendations, please visit:
•    Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health 2015 DG Fact Sheet
•    My Plate, My Planet Myths & Facts
•    Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Plant-based Diet Evidence