A global consensus on lifestyle as medicine.
Don’t Eat Your Children’s Food
Following a plant-based diet will benefit the planet and future generations.
David L. Katz, MD, MPH
March 30, 2015

No, this is not about noshing on plate scraps. Nor is it about “kid food,” per se. I have written about that before. For that matter, my son has weighed in on that topic, addressing it both to you and directly to his peers, your kids. He has done so more than once, growing from a boy to a young man in the process, with his subject matter – food – the one and only construction material. It’s our own mini-version of “Boyhood.”

But, as noted, that is not today’s topic. Today’s topic is sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued what I consider to be a truly stellar, 572-page report. We are now in a period of cogitation, consideration and commentary during which everyone with skin in the game gets to tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture why they should embrace or renounce specific elements in the report.

In a departure from prior committee reports, this one addresses the sustainability of our diets. Because this is a new topic, there is some feeble basis to say maybe it doesn’t belong here. But feeble it is; of course it belongs here.

The reason to address sustainability now, and not before now, is because now we know it is an issue. Dietary guidelines were inattentive to trans fat, too, until we first invented it, and then learned it was toxic. Once you know that dietary patterns will influence whether or not there is enough food and water to go around, ignoring that issue while generating “dietary guidelines” would be like offering tips forsafe swimming at the beach that fail to mention the notorious riptides, or the unusual number of hungry sharks nearby.

So, really, it’s hard to see how this can be legitimately controversial for anyone who plans to live, and eat, on this planet for the foreseeable future. But it is, just the same – and for the inevitable reason. Money.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends an emphasis on plant foods. This, in fact, is entirely consistent with the vast weight of scientific evidence about human health. It might be possible to adopt a paleo diet that is as good for human health as the many variations on the theme of plant-based diets we know are good, but it’s a proposition encumbered by two problems.

The first is that it’s a leap of faith. We have no evidence from the Stone Age that Stone Age diets wereassociated with long life, and lasting vitality. Life expectancy in the Stone Age is thought to have been around 40 years.

We have no such evidence from any modern population or intervention studies, either. In contrast, we do, of course, have just such evidence for plant-based diets, since entire populations around the world thrive on them, producing 100-year lifespans in the process.

The second problem bedeviling the paleo proposition is that there are more than 7 billion Homo sapiens here now. I have done the math, and we would need roughly 15 times the total land surface area of the earth to be hunter-gatherers, all. So until we relocate the dinner party to Jupiter, paleo cannot be a dietary recommendation for the masses; and that’s just who the dietary guidelines are for. An option for a devoted few, so disposed? Sure. A prescription for populations in the hundreds of millions? Not remotely.

So there is no good reason to oppose recommendations for mostly plant-based diets. The meat industry has decided to oppose the recommendations just the same, for reasons both obvious and bad. They have considerable influence at the Department of Agriculture, so it’s anyone’s guess how this will play out. That’s a shame.

The arguments against the meat industry position, and in favor of the emphasis on sustainability, have been made beautifully in a recent column by my friend Walter Willett and others. I commend their insights to you, and won’t repeat them here.

Rather, I will append a more personal perspective. If, in an age when we know that food and water shortages are clear and present dangers, we choose to ignore them in our dietary guidelines, then these are not dietary guidelines for “Americans,” as they claim to be. They are, instead, dietary guidelines for “the current generation of American adults,” and at the obvious expense of all subsequent generations of American (and planetary) adults – including, of course, our children.

Whether or not the federal agencies withstand lobbying and keep sustainability in the guidelines, you and I have a far more intimate problem with which to contend. If we don’t keep sustainability as one of our own priorities, we are eating at the expense of the planet. We are eating at the expense of the generations to follow us.

We are, in other words, eating our children’s food and drinking our children’s water, along with our own. Do we really even need a government document to tell us what an irresponsible, reprehensible proposition that is? The dietary guidelines are silent on the topic of cannibalism, too, by the way; that doesn’t seem to propagate much confusion on the topic.

Human beings, in our multitudes, should eat mostly plant-based diets for our own health, and that of our planet. We should do so because what we choose to eat today reverberates through what there will be to eat tomorrow. Dietary guidelines that fail to address this are sadly stunted and deficient. But whether or not the feds get this right, every parent certainly should.