Knock. Knock.

Who’s there?

The nation’s top nutrition panel.

The nation’s top nutrition panel who?

The nation’s so-called top nutrition panel, including medical doctors, registered nurses, individuals with doctorate degrees in a variety of health and nutrition fields, and public health experts, that decided not only to recommend lower meat consumption, but also to veer off course and venture into the realm of environmental sustainability in our report to the federal government that will be the basis for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

That's a mouth full.

That’s right, the process of updating the nation’s dietary guidelines (which are the foundation of federal nutrition policy, education, outreach and food assistance programs throughout the nation, and are supposed to provide science-based advice related to food and physical activity choices to promote good health, a healthy weight and prevent disease for Americans ages 2 and older) is one step closer to be complete. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report was released publicly and also sent to the secretaries of Health and Human Services and USDA.

Next, the report will be published in the Federal Register and open to public comment for 45 days. And if you are someone who supports the role of lean meat in a nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet, you better be paying attention.

Since the first guidelines were published in 1980, the guidelines have focused on healthy dietary patterns. The latest version of the dietary guidelines, established in 2010, included 23 key recommendations focused on three overarching goals:  balance calories with physical activity to manage weight; consume more nutrient-dense food and beverages; and reduce sodium consumption.

After spending more than a year reviewing scientific literature, holding public hearings and listening to stakeholder input, this is what the panel concluded: “The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.”

Lower in red and processed meats? Buried in a footnote, the committee says “As lean meats were not consistently defined or handled similarly between studies, they were not identified as a common characteristic across the reviews. However, as demonstrated in the food pattern modeling of the Healthy U.S.-style and Healthy Mediterranean-style patterns, lean meats can be part of a healthy dietary pattern.”

Both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the North American Meat Institute say the committee is contradicting itself with a first a recommendation of a healthy dietary pattern that is lower in red and processed meat, and second an endorsement of the Mediterranean diet, which has higher red meat levels than currently consumed in the United States.

“Today’s beef supply is leaner than ever before with more than 30 cuts of beef recognized as lean by the government standards,” said Dr. Shalene McNeill, registered dietician and nutrition scientist with NCBA. “The protein foods category, which includes meat, is the only category currently consumed within the current guidelines, and it is misleading to conclude that a healthy dietary pattern should be lower in red meat.”

In the past 30 years, through advancements in production, genetics and processing, beef has 34 percent less total fat and 17 percent less saturated fat. Beef is also recognized an excellent source of six nutrients (protein, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 , niacin and selenium) and a good source of four nutrients (phosphorous, choline, iron and riboflavin).

“The American diet is already 70 percent plant based and to further emphasize plant-based diets will continue to have unintended consequences. The Advisory Committee got it wrong in the ‘80s advising a diet high in carbs, and look at what that got us – an obesity problem,” said Dr. Richard Thorpe, a Texas medical doctor and cattle producer. “My colleagues and I commonly encourage people to include lean beef more often for their health, not less.”

Barry Carpenter, NAMI president and CEO, says meat and poultry products are rich in iron, a nutrient of concern highlighted by the committee. He also raises a flag with regard to processed meats.

“Processing meat and poultry so that it can be more readily consumed – and consumed in styles and flavor profiles that people around the world savor – helps ensure that people can make these products part of their healthy balanced diet,” Carpenter explains. “Processed meat and poultry products are diverse and include low-fat, low- sodium, gluten-free, natural, organic, kosher, halal and regular formulations, along with countless flavors and styles.”

Not to let a hot-topic buzzword go to waste, the committee for the first time included sustainability concerns in its report to USDA and HHS. It should be noted, that while the 14-person committee has a plethora of human health and wellness experts, there is not an agronomist, animal scientist, economist or food producer of any type with a seat at the DGAC table.

That didn’t stop the committee from saying “The major findings regarding sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

It continues “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, compared to the above dietary patterns. This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower, than proposed in these three dietary patterns.” (the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern)

“The Committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise.  It’s akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care,” Carpenter said.

Indeed. But whether you have similar concerns as NCBA and NAMI, or if you support the committee's report, now's your choice to be heard. This is not new territory. An initial recommendation to switch to a "plant-based diet" in the DGAC report for the 2010 guidelines was removed from the final guidelines. 

The report will be open for public comment until April 8. In addition, HHS and USDA will host a public oral comment meeting on March 24. For more information about either submitting written or oral comments, visit http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2015/comments/.  

After the comment period closes, USDA and HHS will review the report and the public comments and publish the 8th edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which could be in fall 2015.