New Study Finds Recommended US Diet May Lead to Greater Environmental Damage Than Current US Diet

Policymakers Can Better Protect Both Environment and Public Health With Sustainable Dietary Guidelines

Published Mar 13, 2020

WASHINGTON (March 13, 2020)—As a federal scientific advisory committee prepares to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a peer-reviewed study published today in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that the diet recommended in current guidelines may not be better for the planet than what we’re eating now.

The new study synthesized the findings of 22 recent studies that analyzed how dietary patterns in the United States affect sustainability, including global warming emissions, air and water quality, and energy, land, and water use.

“We didn’t necessarily expect these findings,” said Sarah Reinhardt, lead author of the study and lead food systems and health analyst for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We discovered that the federal dietary guidelines, as written, may not be better for the planet than what we eat now.”

That finding is due in part to the guidelines calling for higher consumption of fruits, vegetables and dairy compared to the average U.S. diet. These foods can require more resources to produce, particularly water. But this isn’t a reason to stop eating your fruits and veggies, according to Reinhardt.

“The good news is that a healthy diet and an environmentally sustainable diet do not need to be at odds,” she explained. “Our review found that eating less meat and dairy tends to reduce environmental damage and outweigh the impacts of eating more fruits and vegetables.”

Reinhardt and her co-authors noted that more research is needed to understand how shifting to more sustainable diets could affect farmers and ranchers, workers across the food supply chain, and families who experience food insecurity.

The findings show why the federal government should factor in environmental sustainability when issuing new dietary guidelines, according to Reinhardt. She pointed out that she and her co-authors did research the federal government should be doing—even replicating the government’s own methodology—to protect long term public health in light of worsening climate change and degradation of natural resources already affecting food and farming systems.

“We’re looking for that sweet spot—a way of growing and eating food that supports public health, the environment, and the farmers and families who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and food insecurity,” said Reinhardt. “This study gets us one step closer to finding it.”