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New Dietary Guidelines Could Save Lives

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

This opinion piece was printed in The Denver Post on Feb. 6, 2011.

Every five years since 1980, the government has given the American public nutrition advice by updating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And every year since then, Americans have become markedly more overweight.

But the revised advice the government just dished out could help change this. The just-released 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans put a long-overdue emphasis on vegetarian and vegan foods and how they can tackle the obesity crisis. As a dietitian focusing on chronic disease prevention, I’m thrilled about this new addition to the guidelines, and I hope Americans take these recommendations to heart.

Conclusive scientific evidence supports a low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health. Peer-reviewed studies find that people who avoid meat cut their risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—the number one cause of death in America. Researchers have found that low-fat, plant-based diets can even help reverse type 2 diabetes and heart disease after these diseases have already set in.

This is not new information, but the federal government has been extremely slow to accept that plant-based diets are the healthiest choice for Americans. Food industry interests have often gotten in the way of current evidence on nutrition and health.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines are not perfect. They still avoid listing foods people need to eat less of, like meat and cheese, apparently to avoid upsetting meat and dairy producers. And they still recommend dairy products even though these foods are unnecessary and linked to serious health problems.

But the bright spot is hard to miss: The new guidelines devote two full pages to vegetarian and vegan diets and the health benefits of following these eating patterns. They point out that these diets provide nutritional advantages and reduce obesity, heart disease, and overall mortality.

Previous advisory panels have noted the value of vegetarian diets, but the new guidelines are the first to specifically recommend them. It’s unfortunate that the government waited to take bold action until the majority of American adults and one in three children are overweight or obese, but it’s better late than never. The new guidelines come with a sense of urgency to do all we can to fight obesity and other diet-related health problems.

The diabetes epidemic alone costs the United States $174 billion a year, including $116 in direct medical expenses, according to new numbers from the Centers for Control and Prevention. Since just 2008, the number of Americans with prediabetes has increased by nearly 40 percent. An estimated 25.8 million children and adults have diabetes, and an additional 79 million have prediabetes.

The Dietary Guidelines are renewed every five years. Imagine what the diabetes numbers will look like in 2015 if we don’t take the new recommendations seriously. I hope the updated guidelines quickly translate into stronger federal nutrition programs with a heavy emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. I’m especially hopeful these new recommendations will motivate the National School Lunch Program to add more vegetarian options in lunch lines to help reduce childhood obesity rates.

Despite all the evidence backing the healthfulness of a plant-based diet, I know the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee faced challenges in updating the guidelines. But I’m glad committee members acknowledged America’s current state of health and rewrote the guidelines with our future generations in mind.  

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is a dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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