Nutrition advisers in the Netherlands took a progressive step this week, one that will likely further stoke conversations about the relationship between a healthy diet and a healthy planet. And their sights are set squarely on meat.
The Netherlands Nutrition Centre says it is recommending people eat just two servings of meat a week, setting an explicit limit on meat consumption for the first time. The recommendations come five years after a government panel weighed the ecological impact of the average Dutch person’s diet, concluding last year that eating less meat is better for human and environmental health.
The Nutrition Centre, a government-funded program responsible for making food-based dietary guidelines, took those conclusions and presented them on Tuesday in its “Wheel of Five”—a graphic distributed to the public, along the lines of the U.S. government’s “MyPlate.”
“The new dietary guidelines are implemented in our new education model … in a way that the total environmental impact of the diet is lower than the current consumption,” explains Corné van Dooren, a sustainable food expert at the center. “We focus on eating a less animal-based and more plant-based diet by the unique advice to consume not more than 500 grams of meat a week.”
Of that 500 grams, or about one pound, only 300 grams should be red, or “high-carbon” meat, van Dooren noted, explaining that the guidelines suggest getting protein from other sources, like one 25-gram portion of unsalted nuts a day and one 135-gram portion of pulses a week. Seafood recommendations also get an update.
“The advice for fish is changed from two portions to one portion a week, due to sustainability issues,” van Dooren adds. “One portion is enough to reach the benefits for coronary heart diseases.”
Over the past decade, a handful of countries have started to more seriously consider environmental factors in their official nutrition advice, including the U.S. That’s out of the more than 60 countries that maintain and update nutrition advice, according to the FAO.
“There are just a very few countries that have taken this issue on,” says Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now the executive director of sustainability at George Washington University. “It’s a moving target.”
In 2014, Merrigan helped convene a conference on food sustainability, inviting government nutrition advisers from the Netherlands and Brazil, two of the countries that have worked most intensively on the issue. (In 2012, Brazil set new recommendations that factored in “environmental integrity,” fair trade principles and the eating patterns of indigenous food cultures.)
Other countries that have included sustainability into their nutrition advice, or have seriously contemplated doing so, include Germany, Australia, Sweden, and the U.K.
Many in the U.S., too, embraced the conversation around sustainability when the 15-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee announced in its 2015 report that sustainable diets, lower in meat intake, are also more healthful (see New U.S. Dietary Recommendations First to Consider Environmental Impact.)
But not everyone went for it. The idea that environmental considerations should make their way into nutrition advice has been especially controversial with the livestock industry, which fought against their inclusion. The American livestock industry, for one, successfully argued that sustainability—or specific recommendations to limit meat consumption because of the environmental toll of meat production—get knocked out of the final Dietary Guidelines. The final guidelines were issued in January (see What’s In America’s New Dietary Guidelines—and What’s Not).
Just last week, the U.K. issued its latest nutrition advice, recommending a diet lower in red and processed meat. The move was hailed by nutrition groups, even as they sought more explicit reductions.
“We welcome the steps [Public Health England] has taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from diets in its revision of the Eatwell Guide and its recommendation to reduce processed and red meat consumption and eat more beans & pulses,” says Clare Oxborrow, chair of the nutrition advocacy group, Eating Better. “More could be done to fully integrate sustainability into the U.K.’s dietary guidelines, but this is a good start.”
The new advice, though, was immediately blasted by the livestock industry.
“Blanket messages to reduce red meat consumption could be very detrimental to the diets of consumers who already eat low to moderate amounts of red meat, for example women and young people,” says Emma Derbyshire, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, in British media reports last week. “Lean red meat is rich in protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and selenium and makes an important contribution to daily vitamin and mineral intakes.”
The industry pushback will likely get stronger as more governments turn their attentions to the issue of sustainability in the diet.
“There’s just a lot of political pressure, everywhere,” says Kate Clancy, a sustainability expert and visiting scholar at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. “Some of it is direct political pressure, but some of it is a feeling that there just isn’t enough research out there yet.”
Sustainability advocates, including Merrigan, say that environmental considerations in nutrition advice are, increasingly, getting the attention of environmental groups, adding a new dimension to the debate. In Brazil, for example, Merrigan said, the traditional coalition of farmers and agribusiness broke down as environmental groups entered the conversation. “The farmers grouped with consumers and environmentalists against agribusiness, and that’s how they succeeded in getting their guidelines through,” she explained.
Still, Merrigan says, the conversation has a long way to go. “We didn’t see agriculture as a main-stage topic in Paris at the climate talks, and yet the estimates are that agriculture contributes 22 percent of the human-created greenhouse gasses,” she notes. “We know that’s all around diet, and we know there’s a dietary transition across the globe as more countries consume more meat. That puts us on an unsustainable track.”