President's Desk, June 2015
David L. Katz, MD, MPH

Let's Not Eat Our Children's Food!



The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committeefor 2015 issued what I consider to be a truly stellar, 572-page report.  As I write this, the period for public comment has closed- after nearly 30,000 comments were logged.  We now wait to see how the diaphanous determinations of public health science survive the rough and tumble of political horse-trading.


In a departure from all prior reports issued by Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees in the U.S., the committee for 2015 decided to address the sustainability of our diets. Because this is a new topic, there is some feeble basis to say maybe it doesn’t belong here.  But feeble it is; of course it belongs here. 


The reason to address sustainability now, and not before now, is because now we know it is in peril.  An analogy may make the case, if it is not immediately self-evident. 


We may, heretofore, have been bemused to think of the earth as a titanic cruise ship, offering an endless buffet- with food and drink selected and consumed accordingly.  Transition to crowded lifeboats, however, and the same passengers are indisputably obligated to look at water and food supplies quite differently. There can be no attention to nutrition that ignores the relevant supply.  Consider how absurd it would be for, say, a preventive medicine specialist in such a lifeboat to insist that he get the optimal nutrition to which he is accustomed, and rationing be damned!


Our current situation is just so.  With more than 7 billion of us established here, with California drying up, with climate changing and traditional crops failing, with extinctions accelerating and with environmental stresses globally near the breaking point, earth is no longer an unsinkable, titanic cruise ship.  To treat it as such is benighted folly.  Earth is now our lifeboat.  In it, we can ration our resources rationally, or we can eat our children’s food.  The notion that guidelines for healthy eating can be dismissive of whether or not the food in question exists, or will for much longer, is like eating on a lifeboat as if still on the mother ship.  It approximates slow suicide, and worse.


Our dietary guidelines either acknowledge and address this reality, as do recent and pending guidelines from countries around the world, or they become an anachronism at best, an embarrassment at worst.  Dietary guidelines were inattentive to trans fat, too, until we first invented it, and then learned it was toxic.  Guidelines must pertain here, and now.


So, really, it’s hard to see how this can be legitimately controversial for anyone who plans to live, and eat, on this planet for the foreseeable future.  But it is, just the same- and for the inevitable reason.  Money.


The DGAC recommends an emphasis on plant foods.  This, in fact, is entirely consistent with the vast weight of scientific evidence about human health.


So there is no good reason to oppose recommendations for mostly plant-based diets.  The meat industry has decided to oppose the recommendations just the same, for reasons both obvious and bad.  They have considerable influence at USDA, so it’s anyone’s guess how this will play out.  That’s a shame.


The arguments against the meat industry position, and in favor of the emphasis on sustainability, have been made beautifully in a recent column by my friend Walter Willett and others.  I commend their insights to you, and won’t repeat them here.


Rather, I will append a more personal perspective.  If, in an age when we know that food and water shortages are clear and present dangers, we choose to ignore them in our dietary guidelines, then these are NOT dietary guidelines for “Americans” as they claim to be.  They are, instead, dietary guidelines for  “the current generation of American adults,” and at the obvious expense of all subsequent generations of American (and planetary) adults- including, of course, our children.


If we don't keep sustainability as one of our own priorities- we are eating at the expense of the planet.  We are eating at the expense of the generations to follow us.  We are eating our children’s food and drinking our children’s water, along with our own.  Do we really even need a government document to tell us what an irresponsible, reprehensible proposition that is? 


I am proud that the American College of Lifestyle Medicinehas stood up and been counted, lending our support to the importance of healthy, sustainable eating.  Every parent has cause to do the same.