America must eat less meat, says influential nutrition panel

Image of a plate and knife and fork made of fruit and vegetables

One of US’s most eminent advisory panels on nutrition has recommended that its citizens cut down on the amount of meat they eat in order to fight climate change.

In a 571-page report, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) advises Americans to eat less meat and dairy and more fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

The report cites “consistent evidence” that diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are “more health promoting and… associated with less environmental impact than is the current average US diet”.

And it specifically notes the connection between a high-meat diet and environmental degradation.

“Current evidence shows that the average US diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use … because the current US population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower.”

The DGAC report states for the first time that Americans need to consider the sustainability of their food. This is significant, according to Marion Nestle, a former DGAC member and a professor of nutrition at New York University, because the US government is likely to listen.

Describing the report as a “dramatic departure”, she said: “The one thing the Dietary Guidelines have never been allowed to do is say clearly and explicitly to eat less of anything. This committee is not burying anything, or obfuscating. They’re just telling it like it is.”

While the meat industry has slammed the report, a growing body of scientific evidence has confirmed that high-meat diets have a significant impact on human health and the environment.

And given the statistics – according to USDA and UN figures, Americans in the 1950s consumed an average of about 60 kg of meat a year, in 2000 just under 90 kg a year, and by the start of this decade 122 kg a year – the US has an urgent need to address its growing addiction to meat.

DGAC member Miriam Nelson, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, said that the US was being left behind in the drive to reform diets, food systems and farming.

“We need to start thinking about what’s sustainable,” she said. “Other countries have already started doing this – including sustainability in their recommendations. We should be doing it too.”

Read the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendations