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What Americans Can Learn From the New Dutch Dietary Guidelines

It’s time to incorporate sustainability issues into the way we eat as a country.

Image by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons

Last month the Voedingscentrum, the Netherland’s state-funded nutrition authority, issued an aggressive new set of national dietary guidelines. This is the first time the nation’s official food program has been updated since 2004 and it will be used by many Dutch health providers and nutritionists. They’re pretty similar to most other national dietary guidelines, but the regimen sets itself apart by placing hardline consumption limits on meat and animal products.

The Dutch, they say, should cap meat consumption at two servings per week, with no more than 60 percent of those portions comprising red meat. Furthermore, none of that red meat should processed. Other common animal-based proteins have been scaled back as well: No more than one serving of fish, no more than three eggs and no cheese if possible, favoring nuts and legumes instead.

This is the first time the Voedingscentrum has placed hard limits on meat consumption. These new recommendations are not just notable for their definitive stance on ever-popular animal products, but because they were based as much on environmental sustainability as on health issues. Namely, the meat guidelines directly address overfishing and the inefficient land use and high carbon emissions associated with red meat production.

The environmental impact of meat processing is an especially important issue for Americans to embrace—not just because we account for perhaps 10 percent of agriculture-linked greenhouse gas emissions — but also because we recently struggled (and failed) to bring similar considerations into our own dietary guidelines. Similar concerns but a lack of equivalent action in the U.S. may tempt some to turn to the Dutch guidelines as an alternative to ours here in the States. Yet dietary experts claim that while these guidelines point in the right universal direction, they may not be universally applicable in their particulars. But they can help us reevaluate how we consider the role of sustainability in our own food supply chain.

Nutritionists behind America’s own new guidelines, which were released about three months ago, actually pushed hard to get sustainability factored into the new document. Members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made explicit notes on the matter in their 2015 report to the report’s eventual authors. But government officials refused to include these concerns. Congress launched a measure to review the new directives, collectively tying up their release, after arguing that the document ought to be solely about health. This hostility ignored the fact that sustainability actually already got a throwaway mention in the 2010 guidelines and that previous reports made open considerations for food security, another health crossover issue.

Not that America’s final guidelines were terrible. Much as they have since the 1980s, they focused on the basics (eat more vegetables, less junk food), but they also went far deeper into the details. They took cut recommended consumption of added sugars, and promoted, in general terms, a diet like the one in the Dutch guidelines. And while they pissed off health experts of all stripes by making liberal allowances for meat, even potentially carcinogenic items, and backing down on old concerns about eggs and cholesterol consumption, the guidelines did urge men and teenage boys to reduce their protein intake, which was a national first.

“About 95 percent of the stuff that came out in the final guidelines in the U.S. was in the public’s best interest,” says Miriam Nelson, a nutrition expert at the University of New Hampshire who pushed for sustainability considerations on the recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. “But there were certain things that just didn’t make it in.”

Screenshot of the meat lobby's "Hands Off My Hotdog" campaign

Nelson and others believe this soft touch was the result of heavy lobbying by America’s massive meat industry to discredit firm data on the health and environmental impacts of eating flesh. (And it’s pretty clear these bodies did take an aggressive hand against sustainability issues, going so far as to launch a petition entitled “Hands off My Hotdog” about the guidelines.) They note that even the guideline’s limited precautions about meat consumption are written in hedged language, which seems like authors struggling to balance science and industry pressure.

In comparison to the haggling that went into America’s guidelines, Nelson praises the Dutch recommendations as “right on target” and worthy of applause. But Corné van Dooren, a sustainable food expert at the Voedingscentrum, cautions that while there are universal elements in the Netherlands’ dietary guidelines, some parts of it were crafted to specifically shepherd the Dutch culture towards a better future. He points GOOD to a recent academic paper he authored on cultural differences and applicability in guidelines, which reads as follows on the new Dutch directives:

“These results are relevant because an adaptation of the historical diet, which fits better into the present eating habits, climate, and agricultural tradition of the [Netherlands], is concluded to be easier to achieve than a transition to a more foreign Southern or Northern European diet.”

That is to say, according to Nelson, that food guidelines need to make incremental positive changes in a culture’s dietary norms and respond to availability and other unique conditions. You can’t always make quantum jumps forward, nor is it always wise to lean on another culture’s norms.

Yet the Dutch guidelines can still push American norms forward in an indirect way. They are part of a growing wave of national guidelines authored with sustainability in mind. In recent years a number of nations have built these into their own documents. Van Dooren thinks that some, like the United Kingdom’s, have gone even further than his own nation. Most of these countries aren’t nearly as tied to the meat industry as America, but in 2012 Brazil defied the notion that a country with a massive cattle lobby has to bow to meat industry lobbying. They released recommendations in favor of the environment, free trade, and indigenous-style food cultures, setting a strong precedent for what’s possible in the U.S.

“The fact that Brazil [was] able to move this needle,” says Nelson, “shows it’s really related to political will.”

Ideally the language in the Dutch guidelines, the precedent of Brazil, and similar moves by other nations in the coming years will build an unassailable precedent for sustainability considerations when it comes time for new U.S. dietary ideals in another five years. Nelson believes there’s a strong constituency in America to support that development; all they need is a good business case, a body of precedent and a quasi-functional regulatory system to really drive it home.

“It’s [only] a matter of time” until we get onboard with the Dutch and others on sustainability-based guidelines, says Nelson. “It’s going to happen.”

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