The Public Health Implications of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines

An Expert Interview With David L. Katz, MD, MPH

Janet Kim, MPH

Disclosures

February 15, 2011

In This Article

Plant-Based Foods

Medscape: What are your thoughts on the new guidelines' greater emphasis on plant-based foods in the American diet?

Dr. Katz: I think that is, by and large, a very good thing. Like so many people these days, I consider a big part of what's wrong with our diets is that they have moved too far from nature; that we're eating too many things out of bags, boxes, bottles, jars, and cans when we could be eating more foods direct from nature. I am a Michael Pollan fan and ultimately think that eating food, not too much of it and mostly from plants, is indeed very good advice. If we want people to eat mostly plants, we have to place an emphasis on that in our national dietary guidelines -- that a mostly plant-based diet is in the sweet spot associated with reduced risk for chronic disease and all-cause mortality. Of course, plants can be processed, too, and their nutritional properties marginalized, so ideally we're talking about minimally processed foods.

My one concern with the update is that the emphasis may not have been nearly strong enough. In the full dietary guidelines document, a couple of pages are devoted to vegetarian and vegan diets, which only get about a line and what seems like a passing reference in the executive summary that most people will read. The guidelines seem devoted to the principle that exclusively plant-based eating is a novelty in the United States. Indeed it is, but that doesn't mean it should be.

I also don't think that they place an appropriate emphasis on the ancillary benefits of mostly plant-based eating. By that I mean the benefits to the environment. A lot of people who are motivated by personal health concerns are also motivated by concerns for the health of the planet. Growing crops to feed to animals so that we can eat the animals is inefficient. It consumes much more acreage; it produces much more pollution. For every little bit that we shift population consumption patterns in the direction of plant-based eating, we're likely to improve the public's health. We're also likely to improve the environment. I think that deserves some recognition. The implications of how we eat, and therefore of dietary guidelines, are limited to personal health. I do appreciate the emphasis on mostly plant-based eating, but it deserved more attention.

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