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The Physicians Committee

The Effects of 30 Years of Weight Gain

Every year since 1980, Americans have become markedly more overweight. That is when the United States government first began giving nutrition advice through the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But at a recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee meeting, PCRM asked the government to acknowledge America’s current state of health and rewrite those guidelines.

At the meeting, held at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., PCRM nutritionist Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., joined almost 20 other people who spoke about the benefits of plant-based diets.

In her testimony, Levin stressed that the guidelines—which serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition programs—were originally written with healthy people in mind. But today, only a minority of Americans fit that description. Here are some of the disturbing facts Levin highlighted in her presentation:

  • more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese;
  • the prevalence of overweight in children ages 6 to 19 has tripled in the past two decades;
  • almost 81 million Americans have at least one form of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States; and
  • one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes at some point in his or her lifetime.

But changes in the federal guidelines can directly target the diet-related diseases that claim millions of American lives each year. Levin recommended that the new guidelines should support low-fat diets for the prevention and treatment of disease and should include more information on the benefits of vegetarian diets.

mother and daughter shopping for healthy food“Making these revisions will not be easy—real innovation never is,” says Levin. “But as we confront a future in which rising rates of obesity and chronic disease could cause the next generation of children to lead shorter lives than their parents, the need for fundamental changes to America’s eating habits couldn’t be more clear.”

She pointed out that science supports a low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health. Even the American Dietetic Association states that “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle.” Studies show that plant-based diets can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.

Despite all the evidence backing the healthfulness of a plant-based diet, there are challenges in changing the guidelines. The USDA’s primary purpose is to promote American agribusiness, which often conflicts with promoting health. Special interest groups, especially the powerful meat industry, make it difficult for the USDA to encourage healthful behavior.

Such pressure is already evident. Representatives of the National Dairy Council, the National Pork Board, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spoke at the recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee meeting.

The next Dietary Guidelines for Americans meeting is tentatively scheduled for the end of April. It will be open to the public for listening only. PCRM will continue to reach out to the advisory committee with information about how vegetarian diets could improve public health.

To submit your own comments asking the USDA to support vegetarian diets, please visit

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

PCRM Online, March 2009

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