Against the Science, Meat Pushes Back into U.S. Diet (Op-Ed)
Credit: Raw meat photo via Shutterstock

Dr. Michael Greger is the director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States. A physician, author and speaker, he has lectured at the International Bird Flu Summit and has testified before the U.S. Congress. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issue the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," which are intended to encourage individuals to eat a healthful diet. An advisory council provides direction for each update of these guidelines based on the latest nutrition science. 

The advisory council's report, just published for the 2015 guidelines, is cause for celebration on many fronts. The nutrition experts who created it seemed to be less susceptible to industry influence, and their report could lead to the most evidence-based dietary guidelines the nation has ever adopted. [Diet High in Red Meat Linked to Higher Diabetes Risk]

A history of health diverted

It would seem natural for the guidelines to improve with each edition, since nutrition studies continually accumulate more insight about which dietary patterns are better than others, but too much of that evidence has been kept out of the dietary guidelines for decades. 

Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), best known for his 1972 presidential campaign, chaired the committee that released the first Dietary Goals for the United States in January 1977. The goals noted, "Most all of the health problems underlying the leading causes of death in the United States could be modified by improvements in diet." At the press conference about the goals' release, McGovern said:

"The simple fact is that our diets have changed radically within the last 50 years with very harmful effects on our health. These dietary changes represent as great a threat to public health as smoking … The public wants some guidance, wants to know the truth, and hopefully today we can lay the cornerstone for the building of better health for all Americans through better nutrition."

Also at the press conference, Dr. D. Mark Hegsted of the Harvard School of Public Health, who was instrumental in developing the dietary goals, added:

"The diet of the American people has become increasingly rich — rich in meat and other sources of saturated fat and cholesterol, and in sugar. … Ischemic heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension are the diseases that kill us. They are epidemic in our population. We cannot afford to temporize."

Hegsted added: "The meat, milk and egg producers were very upset." After receiving pressure from those industries, not only was the goal to have "decrease meat consumption" removed from the final report, but the entire Senate nutrition committee was disbanded. 

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Can the science prevail?

Fast forward to the past decade, and our country's meat consumption had further skyrocketed, though that has finally started to wane as individuals grow more knowledgeable about making healthier food choices. Yet, the "decrease meat consumption" recommendation still hasn't been translated into formal guidelines.

The USDA is tasked with managing and promoting agriculture — including the well-funded animal agriculture industry — so it's pulled into a tug-of-war every time the dietary guidelines are re-evaluated. The animal agriculture industry for which it advocates doesn't want to see its bottom line in jeopardy. Meatingplace, a trade publication, even posted an article in 2010 entitled "Healthier diets pose a hazard to meat producers: study." 

As a physician specializing in nutrition, my priority is to the health of the public. That’s why I want to see the compelling dietary evidence reflected in the national dietary guidelines, which would be consistent with HSUS's Three Rs approach: Reducing or replacing consumption of animal products, and refining diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal-welfare standards.

Last week, those of us advocating for such changes were again given the backing of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. In its report to the HHS and USDA for the next updated guidelines, it recommended that Americans eat a more plant-based diet.

The benefits of a healthier diet are far-reaching because they also equate to fewer animals being bred into inhumane factory farm conditions and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. [Why Does Less Meat Mean Less Heat? (Op-Ed )]

We'll find out soon if pressure from the meat, egg and dairy industries prevails over the well-established science showing plant-based foods tend to be better for us, the planet and our ability to protect animals — or if we'll have to wait another five years for a new committee's report to trigger this same battle.

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