'Sugar is the new tobacco'

Robert Lawrence, director, John Hopkins Centre for Livable Future, shares his thoughts on why sustainability and limit on sugar is critical to American diet

By Chinmayi Shalya
Last Updated: Tuesday 22 September 2015

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommendations give distinct importance to an environmentally sustainable diet. How important, in your opinion, is this new addition to the recommendations in context of the American dietary habits?

At this time, it is highly unlikely that the new United States’ Dietary Guidelines (USDGs) will include the sustainability component. Industry pressure on the US Department of Agriculture has been relentless. If, by some miracle, the environmentally-sustainable diet provisions remain, this would have an important influence on US diets, mainly through purchasing policies for federally-funded programs like the school lunch program, military installations and federal prisons, among others.

The recommendations have constantly stressed on a vegetarian diet, a path away from meats in particular. Is vegetarian diet a way towards a healthier dietary pattern?

The evidence of poor health outcomes linked to a high-meat diet such as that consumed by many Americans is now very strong–cardiovascular disease, stroke, some cancers and diabetes. The most recent epidemiologic study by Walter Willett and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health followed 200,000 men and women for 28 years and showed a dose response curve for processed meat and red meat for poorer health outcomes for each additional three ounce serving.

The new recommendations have created quite a political stir, with 30 senators writing to the US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture that the DGAC is over-stepping its brief by talking about the environment. They also stated that lean meats are a scientifically-proven part of a healthy diet. How common is such interference by politicians in dietary guidelines? Has there been a similar interference in the past too?

Politicians from the farm belt have great influence on the Farm Bill (every five years) and on dietary guidelines. They, in turn, are influenced by their donors from industrial agriculture, the Beef and Cattlemen’s Association, the Dairy Council, the Poultry Board and the Pork Council – all industry groups protecting their self-interest. The action by these 30 senators is nothing new.

The DGAC recommendation on reduction in sugar intake also has been very clear, urging people to have water instead. The US Dietary Guidelines have been talking about reducing sugar consumption in the past too. Is there any pressure or protest from the sugary beverage industry? Could pressure be one of the reasons that America is not able to introduce a soda tax in most of its states, despite repeated recommendations?

From the public health perspective, sugar is the new tobacco. The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the US (sodas and fruit juices) has reached a crisis point, with seven to ten per cent of daily caloric intake of children now coming from added sugar, mostly in sugar-sweetened beverages. There is enormous political power in the hands of Coca Cola, Pepsi, and other manufacturers. The breakthrough in Berkeley, California, and San Francisco for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is an important development.

What, according to you, do the current recommendations lack? Also, how much do the dietary guidelines affect diet patterns on the ground in the USA?

The guidelines could be clearer about the fact that the average adult only requires 55 grams of protein per day while the average American is consuming about 115 grams. Clear messaging about this would help people move away from the belief that they have to consume meat in order to have enough protein.

What, according to you, are the possible solutions to curb or limit the interference of industry in dietary guidelines or food and nutrition related policy?

Total reform of the way we fund political campaigns! Sadly, today we have the finest congress money can buy.

E, DGAC, vegetarians, meats, food and nutrition, sugar-sweetened beverages, soda tax, diet, nutrition

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