Most national dietary guidelines are neither healthy nor sustainable enough, study finds
Are you following your national dietary guidelines closely when you choose your food daily? If you do, you might like to reconsider whether the guideline is really healthy for you and for the planet.
Researchers have analyzed the national food-based dietary guidelines of 85 countries to assess the health and environmental impacts created by recommended food groups. The findings were shocking: none of the 85 countries' food guidelines are sustainable nor healthy enough to reach the sustainable development goals by the United Nations. Among other recommendations, the scientists advise that these guidelines could provide clearer advice for its citizens to reduce animal-based food like meat and dairy products for the sake of the environment and encourage a higher consumption of plant-based food like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes for healthier eating habits.
You might ask, how did they come to that conclusion? And “healthy” and “sustainable” by what standards?
Reducing death rate from chronic diseases by a third is one of targets proposed by the sustainable development goals by the United Nations and, therefore, is a challenge that should be addressed by every dietary guideline. According to the study, high consumption of unprocessed red meat and processed meats, and low consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes, are factors that contribute to premature death by non-communicable diseases.
This doesn't come as a surprise. Many studies have already proven the link between the consumption of animal-based food and various non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
A 2014 review by the World Health Organization found that the consumption of both processed and red meat are associated with several types of cancers, whereas a research conducted by University of California went further, stating that both red and white meat increase LDL cholesterol (popularly known as bad cholesterol) levels when compared to a diet without meat.
In accordance with one of the food recommendations of this research, a large body of existing studies have indicated that milk is not healthy as many would like to think. The consumption of dairy products are not only linked to various types of cancer, but have also been associated with bone fractures, diabetes, and increased mortality. Some countries are already getting it real: in the beginning of 2019, Canada eliminated daily dairy products recommendations from its national food guide, after having been recommending several servings of milk for its citizens for almost 80 years!
To measure how sustainable each national food based dietary guideline is, the researchers assessed if the food groups recommended in each dietary guideline are compatible with global health and environmental targets. The elements that are taken into consideration are, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use in producing foods, and resources used in importing, exporting, and processing foods.
It should be clear by now that most animal-based food is not environmentally friendly at all! Livestock is accountable for something between 14.5% and 18% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), beef is accountable for 41% of the emissions of the livestock sector, while milk production represents 20% of the same emissions. They are also very land and water consuming.
Much is said about the environmental impact of red meat, but egg production is also an important factor in water and soil contamination. Scientists at the University of Oviedo, Spain, have analyzed the effects of intensive egg production and concluded that it has had a significant impact on the water and the soil, especially related to waste management and chicken feed.
Thus, from a human and environmental health perspective, dietary guidelines should advise people to limit in most contexts the consumption of animal source foods and increase the intake of whole plant-based food.
In conclusion, everyone's diet can be healthier and more sustainable if we eat more plant-based foods, and reducing — or even better, eliminating — animal products. You can help the planet even more by supporting local farmers and buy locally sourced and produced foods to reduce carbon footprints that come with the transportation.
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