National dietary guidelines are one of the most powerful policy tools available to encourage shifts toward healthy, sustainable diets. When it comes to government recommendations, dietary guidelines shape how we eat and even how we talk about food, from national policy to education on health and nutrition.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years, also determine the menus for billions of meals served in schools, government cafeterias, military bases, prisons, healthcare institutions and even social programs like Meals on Wheels.
These national recommendations influence how we think about food and what foods are available, accessible and affordable. By basing recommendations on what’s healthy and what’s sustainable, dietary guidelines can help shift food production and eating habits away from unhealthy and environmentally destructive menus that are far too heavy in meat and dairy and toward plant-based foods that are better for us and the planet.
Sustainable dietary guidelines can support food systems that help meet global climate targets and address the wildlife extinction crisis. Learn more about the role of dietary guidelines in climate food policy in our Appetite for Change policy guide.
Several countries around the world are recognizing the importance of food policy as climate policy by encouraging more sustainable diets in their national guidelines.
The Netherlands, for example, released 2016 guidelines that called for no more than two servings of meat per week. Similarly the U.K.’s national dietary guidelines recommended a 7% reduction of dairy consumption and replacing several animal protein servings with plant protein each week.
Sweden directly links meat consumption to environmental damage in its guidelines and calls for people to reduce the amount of meat in their diets. For its 2019 food guide revision, Health Canada made a commitment to science-based guidelines free from industry influence. As a result the food guide acknowledges the benefits of plant-forward diets and replaces dairy with water as the beverage of choice.
However, the United States — where people eat 2 to 4 times the global average of meat — has failed to address the connection between high meat consumption and unsustainable diets in its federal dietary guidelines.
The need for reform is urgent. It's becoming increasingly clear that dietary guidelines are an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
A 2021 study comparing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with dietary guidelines in seven countries found that the U.S. guidelines have the biggest carbon footprint. Even the vegetarian version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans had a larger footprint than other countries’ guidelines due to the amount of dairy recommended. India’s guidelines, which focus on plant proteins, had the smallest footprint.
A 2020 report by EAT found that fewer than 25% of national dietary guidelines around the world recommend reducing meat consumption and the dietary guidelines of the G20 countries, including the United States, are helping drive the planet closer to climate catastrophe. Food-related emissions in G20 countries, which host two-thirds of the world’s population, account for 75% of the world’s carbon budget for food. If these diets were adopted worldwide, it would exceed the planetary boundary for food-related emissions by 263% by 2050.
Another 2020 study analyzed 85 countries and found that most national guidelines were incompatible with the Paris Climate Agreement and other environmental targets such as land use and freshwater use. This study also found that improving dietary guidelines would also benefit public health, such as reducing premature death from diet-related illnesses.
In 2015 the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans include sustainability concerns and call for less meat and more plant-based foods in our daily diets for our own health and the health of the planet. Despite the outpouring of public support for these recommendations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture omitted the environmental impact of meat and dairy from the final guidelines. Read our letter to the USDA here.
In 2020 the Center again urged the USDA to include sustainability in the dietary guidelines. Although the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee encouraged the government to support efforts to consider sustainability in the food system, the issue was once again ignored in the final guidelines.
One positive development in the 2020 guidelines was the first-ever recommendations for infants, which urge parents to feed infants exclusively human milk for the first six months, if possible. Read our op-ed about why breastfeeding is a health, justice and environmental issue.