The Politics Surrounding the U.S. Dietary Guidelines

A Science article authored by GW researchers argues that opposition to “sustainable diets” is politically fueled.

Dietary Guidelines
"MyPlate" is the official food icon of the Dietary Guidelines. The 2015 guidelines will be released at the end of the year. (Photo:
October 05, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

Today’s food system is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution, according to environmental experts.

As the federal government comes closer to releasing its 2015 Dietary Guidelines, it is important to recognize that current dietary patterns and long-term food security are intrinsically linked, says a new paper written by three George Washington University researchers. In other words, by destroying the planet now, our current food practices are also destroying future food availability.

The article, published in Science Express last Thursday, presents a case for incorporating sustainability considerations in the new iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which are issued every five years.

“If you are concerned about having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food into the future, you can’t ignore issues of sustainability,” said GW’s Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary, who co-authored the Science paper. “The question really is, how do you provide food security for the present population, while sustaining resources for future generations?”

Bill Dietz, the director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness, and Kimberly Robien, an associate professor in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, co-wrote the article, along with three faculty members from Tufts University. It spawned from a GW-Tufts food symposium hosted at GW last fall.

Their perspective comes at a critical time. A February report from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—which informs the content of the guidelines but does not make final recommendations—proposed, for the first time, that sustainability be an integral part of the 2015 DGAs.

While skeptics dispute the relevance of the guidelines, asserting that the science behind them is weak and adherence is problematic, the DGAs have a tangible influence on federal programs, Dr. Merrigan said. They inform meal content for the military, 8.6 million Americans served by the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and 31 million children served through the National School Lunch Program.

The secretaries of the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) will decide by the end of the year which parts of the committee’s recommendations to include in the new guidelines.

The U.S. House Agriculture Committee will meet Wednesday with the leaders of HHS and USDA to discuss the process for developing the guidelines. Many legislators, including Committee Chairman Rep. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), do not believe that dietary guidance should include recommendations about sustainability. Pending House and Senate appropriations bills propose new statutory language that would require the secretaries to consider nutrition only in the guidelines.

“The [advisory committee]  greatly exceeded its scope with its February 2015 report by straying from traditional nutritional recommendations and advising on wider policy issues like sustainability and tax policy,” Rep. Conaway wrote in a letter to the secretaries.

But the GW authors disagree, saying in their paper that nothing in the 1990 DGA statute prevents the inclusion of sustainability.

“We believe the issue of scope is not the overarching concern, but a political maneuver to excise sustainability from dietary guidelines,” they write.

The researchers think that environmental politics are unfortunately steering the discussion.

In their article, they outline four politically driven reasons behind the opposition to sustainability:

  • Industry leaders, especially those in the meat industry, feel under attack and believe sustainability evaluations may lead to future regulation.
  • Sustainability has the potential to change the current food-group guidance (fruit, vegetables, protein, for example) to one that focuses on specific foods (chicken vs. beef vs. fish).
  • New political coalitions may form that further tip the balance in favor of sustainability, particularly when drafting future dietary guidelines.
  • Sustainability considerations may sanction and elevate the importance of sustainable diets, opening the government up to greater demands for sustainability investments and telling consumers that such foods are preferred. 

Despite these “political maneuvers” to keep sustainability and dietary guidelines separate, “all major constituencies concerned with food security and health must wrestle with sustainability and dietary choices together,” the authors conclude. “It is right and proper for the DGA process to lead the way.”

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