Every five years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a government-appointed group of top nutrition experts, lays the scientific groundwork for new national dietary guidelines and makes recommendations to the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments. Because a draft of the Committee's new guidelines calls for consumption of more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods based on environmental implications, Congress immediately directed the Obama administration to ignore recommendations that ventured into the realm of "agricultural production practices and environmental factors," claiming that those issues are not within the committee's expertise.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., board-certified specialist in Sports Dietetics and director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research and encourages higher standards of ethics, disagrees. "The committee should consider sustainability. It is their job to look at all the science and make recommendations."
What's the beef?
Although the battle is playing out on a national stage, albeit behind closed doors because Congress issued a gag order to Committee members, the effects will be felt in Indiana, long known as an agricultural state.
Seemingly not worried about the Committee's recommendations, Joe Moore, executive vice president of the Indiana Beef Cattle Association, is nevertheless angry, charging that there is "not one business person, nutritionist or doctor on the committee. They're all academics and they have agendas; most are anti-meat. That's been brought forth in this."
On the contrary, PCRM president Neal Barnard, M.D., fires back with claims of conflict of interest for six of the 11 committee members, citing evidence of financial ties to the meat, dairy or egg industries. "Having advisors tied to the meat or dairy industries is as inappropriate as letting tobacco companies decide our standards for air quality."
Moore, who "vehemently disagrees" with the Committee's recommendations, accuses the "academics [of] trying to turn the ship" through "group think."
Levin is thankful that the DGAC contains academics instead of lobbyists or industry-funded researchers with any agenda. "That's the whole point of it being a transparent committee selection process. It wasn't always like that."
Arguing that the DGAC was "only supposed to consider the nutritional value of food, not sustainability of the environment," Moore insists that the recommendations go against "30 years of peer-reviewed science. It's crap. A plant-based diet doesn't meet science; it's only opinion. Lean meat is a valuable part of any healthy diet. Congress told the Ag Secretary the Committee should only consider nutrition – the extraneous crap should be ignored. They just want millions of dollars in funding to go study their new food requirements."
Dietary requirements have been firmly established by reputable groups, such as the American Dietetic Association, which states that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."
Vegetarian diets are proven to provide several health advantages, including lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower cancer rates.
The China-Cornell-Oxford Project, aka the China Study, the largest comprehensive study of human nutrition ever conducted, presented groundbreaking results. Supported by a partnership between Cornell University, Oxford University and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, the China Study recommends a plant-based diet for best long-term health. "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease. People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest. There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants."
A whole-food, plant-based diet provides protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. It reduces incidents of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and bone, kidney, eye and brain diseases.
Considered "bullet-proof," the 20-year China Study included extensive testing that resulted in 8,000 statistically significant associations between diet and disease. The study discovered links between nutrition and carcinogens. Findings from the China Study indicate that animal protein promotes the growth of cancer. Almost one-third of Americans over age 20 are obese. One out of 13 has diabetes. Heart disease kills one out of three. Many of these health issues can be prevented – and some reversed – by a plant-based diet.
Similarly, the Harvard Health Professionals follow-up study monitored more than 37,000 men and more than 83,000 women for nearly 3 million "person-years." It found that consumption of red meat was associated with an increased risk of premature mortality from cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Many physicians and researchers, such as Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D. at the Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Dean Ornish, Harvard Medical School graduate, have found that a plant-based diet can stop the progression of heart disease. Chronic diseases also can often be prevented or reversed by eating a plant-based diet, providing tremendous savings. Currently, more than 75 percent of the $2.8 trillion annual health care cost is spent to treat chronic disease.
Robert Ostfeld, M.D., director of the Cardiac Wellness Program and associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, says a whole-food, plant-based diet provides the best health benefits without the side effects of medications to treat chronic disease.
"There is no need to consume meat," Levin concludes. "There is no protein or amino acid that can't be gotten from plants. Calcium is readily available in beans and greens. Vegetables have a lot of protein; it's very difficult to under-consume protein. In fact, it's twice as absorbable: 60 percent vs. 30 percent in milk."
"The facts speak for themselves," adds Kim Ferraro, Hoosier Environmental Council senior staff attorney. "This 'need for meat' is just corporate brainwashing. How many more studies do we need from credible, academic institutions?"
Sticking to the diet
The fact that meat is not good for humans may be indisputable, but many people find it tough to stick to a plant-based diet. "We eat too much meat," Ferraro continues, "because food speaks to many aspects of our lives." What was once a delicacy due to price is now an everyday staple – which is the crux of the problem. "If everyone in the world ate like we do, we'd need eight planets to sustain it."
The USDA has been tracking Americans' food intake since 1909. Between then and 2007, the average American's meat intake increased from 124 pounds per year to more than 200 pounds. Cheese intake rose from less than 4 pounds to nearly 33 pounds per year.
Despite Moore's claims that the demand for beef has "never been higher" even while prices also have never been higher, the recent trend appears to indicate a decline in overall meat consumption.
"Prices are up; people are eating less," explains Tom Hertel, an economist at Purdue University. "People respond to prices. Total consumption is falling 10 percent."
Americans consume more meat when it's cheap and convenient, Levin says. Fast food and pizza delivery play a role, but she points out that the government encourages people to consume more beef, cheese and pork.
The USDA admits that prices and availability are influenced by federal agricultural support policies. Levin calls them "checkoff programs" – contracts to put more cheese on burgers, for example. "Daily farmers pay a fee to the program, which then creates campaigns like 'got milk?' – generic promotions that benefit the farmers," she elaborates. "The USDA is behind the scenes with Domino's to figure out where they can put more cheese."
This type of marketing manipulates the trends. Even more serious is the controversy it raises: why is the USDA involved in creating guidelines? This organization was created to get people to eat more meat, then it was tasked with creating dietary guidelines. "It's a huge conflict of interest," Levin states.