For those who advocate for animals, the report from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a bit of a mixed bag.
On the plus side, the report makes a clear recommendation for Americans to eat less meat and, in fact, to eat less animal food in general. The committee says 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.” They specifically name vegetarianism as one of three healthy dietary patterns.
While the committee has shifted recommendations away from outdated ideas about limiting total fat, they have re-confirmed that Americans should continue to cut back on saturated fat—the type found most often in animal products.
Finally, for the first time ever, the committee recommended a reduction in meat intake—including lean meats—because of concerns about the environment. They say that the same plant based diet that protects health is one that has less environmental impact.
How this will fly with the USDA—one of the government agencies that will release the finalized report—is a big question. The meat industry is ready to fight back and they have lots of friends in high places.
But for now, recommendations pertaining to the environment are there, and I think it’s pretty great. Because it is an acknowledgment that dietary guidance needs to take more than human health into consideration. And, we need that shift in perspective to take place if we want a more just and compassionate world. That world requires a much broader set of criteria for defining the “best diet” as I noted in this blog post. It’s not going to materialize via research on diet and health.
A case in point is the single most discouraging thing about the new guidelines. The committee has lifted the cap on daily cholesterol intake. While past guidelines have recommended that Americans consume no more than 300 mg of cholesterol per day, this time the committee says “The 2015 DGAC will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol […] Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
This is no surprise to anyone who follows nutrition research; we saw this coming. Although there are subgroups of the population who need to limit cholesterol intake—people with diabetes in particular—it’s been clear for a long time that the relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels is weak.
This certainly doesn’t suggest a free-for-all with cholesterol or with eggs. Eggs are still part of that big group of animal foods that we’re all supposed to be reducing for our health and for the environment. But reduction in animal food–depending on how it’s done–may or may not help animals. (See my post on why bad news for red meat is bad news for chickens.) And, given the incredible suffering that is an inherent part of the egg industry and the huge number of animals involved, this change feels a little depressing.
It doesn’t really impact my own advocacy for animals, though. I know very well that findings on nutrition and health are always changing. I know that nutrition research is far more conflicting than concurring. And I don’t see much point to building advocacy around facts that may change tomorrow.
In contrast, a vegan ethic never needs to be re-evaluated in view of new evidence. Whether or not eggs are bad for you, there is an indisputable reason not to eat them: It causes unconscionable suffering to animals. That’s a message we can stand behind for as long as it takes.