The new focus on sustainability: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and for our planet

What are the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and who creates them?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans were first released bowls_plates_spoonsin 1980, providing science-based advice to encourage individuals to eat a healthful diet and for the formation of federal food and nutrition and nutrition education programs that help Americans achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health, and prevent chronic disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines every 5 years.

• As part of this process, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) – a group of nationally recognized experts in the field of nutrition, medicine, and public health – reviews the existing guidelines and additional topics for which new scientific evidence is available, culminating in an Advisory Report.

• The purpose of this report is to inform the Federal government of the latest research on diet, nutrition, and health topics that may warrant revisions or new recommendations. The advisory report provides the Federal government with a foundation for developing national nutrition policy; however, the Advisory Report is not the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

• In February 2015, the DGAC submitted its advisory report to the Department of HHS and the USDA. HHS and USDA will decide how to incorporate the report’s information, and will jointly release the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year.

What does this have to do with sustainability?

The 2015 DGAC advisory report includes – for the first time – planet_with_arrowsa focus on sustainability. Chapter 5 focuses on sustainable diets by examining how dietary guidance and food intake influence our ability to meet and sustain the nutrition needs of the U.S. population both now and in future years. Sustainability is an essential element of food security.

As outlined in the report:

 “An important reason for addressing sustainable diets, a new area for the DGAC, is to have alignment and consistency in dietary guidance that promotes both health and sustainability. This also recognizes the significant impact of food and beverages on environmental outcomes, from farm to plate to waste disposal, and, therefore, the need for dietary guidance to include the wider issue of sustainability. Addressing this complex challenge is essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations.” (1)

Key points:

Sustainable diets: A pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.

*Adapted from Figure D5.1: Elements needed for sustainable diets (1)

The DGAC focuses on two main topic areas related to sustainability:

1) Dietary patterns

“Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact (greenhouse gas emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average U.S. diet. A diet that is more environmentally sustainable than the average U.S. diet can be achieved without excluding any food groups.”

• The total energy required to produce a diet was also linked with environmental impact – higher energy diets had a larger estimated impact. For example, one calorie from beef or milk requires 40 or 14 calories of fuel, respectively, whereas one calorie from grains requires 2.2 calories of fuel. (2)

Studies show that adherence to a Mediterranean-style dietary olive_oilpattern— compared to a typical American dietary pattern characterized by high consumption of red meat and dairy—reduced the environmental footprint, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved agricultural land use, and lessened energy and water consumption. (3, 4)

2) Seafood

Consuming seafood has established health benefits , including support of optimal neurodevelopment and prevention of cardiovascular disease. (1) Seafood also provides nutrients including protein, selenium, iodine, vitamin D, and choline. However, as fish is increasingly recognized as a healthy choice, growing demand for seafood production poses challenges as certain species are depleted, while many other species are at the limits of sustainable harvesting. Sustainable seafood must be a priority in order to ensure that Americans and the people world over may enjoy the health benefits of fish and seafood for years to come.

• Seafood production is in the midst of rapid expansion to meet growing worldwide demand, but the collapse of some fisheries due to overfishing in past decades raises concerns about the ability to produce safe and affordable seafood to supply the U.S. population and meet current dietary intake recommendations of at least 8 ounces per week. (5, 6)

• Currently, the United States imports approximately 90 percent of its seafood, and approximately half of that is farmed. (7) Expanding the sustainable production of farm-raised seafood has the potential to produce enough seafood to allow the U.S. population to consume levels recommended by the dietary guidelines. (8, 9)

What is the nutritional difference between wild and farmed seafood?

For commonly consumed fish species in the United States, such assalmon bass, cod, trout, and salmon, farmed-raised seafood has as much or more of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA as the same species captured in the wild. In contrast, other farmed species, such as catfish and crawfish, have less than half the EPA and DHA per serving than fish caught in the wild, and these species have lower EPA and DHA regardless of source than do salmon. Farm-raised seafood has higher total fat, which is mainly unsaturated, than seafood caught in the wild. Recommended amounts of EPA and DHA can be obtained by consuming a variety of farm-raised seafood, especially species well-suited for farming, such as salmon and trout.

The DGAC Advisory Report presents an abundance of research showing that dietary patterns that promote health – that adhere to dietary guidelines – also promote sustainability. Chapter 5 underscores the importance of creating federal standards that take into account not only the health of our population, but the health of our planet.

Whether or not the government includes sustainability in the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans due later this year remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the report contains evidence-based recommendations that offer us a road map for how – right now – we can choose foods that benefit not only our own health, but that of our environment.


1. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Febuary 2015). Part D. Chapter 5: Food Sustainability and Safety. In Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Retrieved from
2. Pimentel D, Pimentel M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(3 Suppl):660S-3S. PMID: 12936963.
3. Saez-Almendros S, Obrador B, Bach-Faig A, Serra-Majem L. Environmental footprints of Mediterranean versus Western dietary patterns: beyond the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Environ Health. 2013;12:118. PMID: 24378069.
4. van Dooren C, Marinussen M, Blonk H, Aiking H, Vellinga P. Exploring dietary 2031guidelines based on ecological and nutritional values: A comparison of six dietary patterns. Food Policy. 2014;44(0):36-46.
5. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture Rome,2012. Available from:
6. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th ed. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; December 2010.
7. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fish Watch: US Seafood Facts [cited 2014 June 14]. Available from:
8. Bouman AF BA, Overbeek CC, D. P. Bureau, M. Pawlowski,, Gilbert. aPM. Hindcasts and future projections of global inland and coastal nitrogen and phosphorus loads due to finfish aquaculture. Reviews in Fisheries Science. 2013;21(2):112-56.
9. Hall S, Delaporte A, Phillips MJ, Beveridge M, O’Keefe, M. Blue frontiers: Managing the Environmental Costs of Aquaculture. WorldFish Center, 2011.