Monday, March 28, 2016

Not All Countries Freak Out About Healthy Eating Alternatives-- Take Holland


I'm thinking about going to Paris this summer. What I'd like to do is rent a house or an apartment in the city and then take a side-trip to Bordeaux, Périgueux, Limoges and the Dordogne Valley to see the caves in the region. It's the only part of France I've never visited and friends tell me it's not-to-be-missed. But Roland wants to visit Amsterdam. He loves Amsterdam-- and especially our friends there-- but I lived there for 4 years and visiting someplace you know in such a workaday way isn't really a vacation. And, after all, no place is as good as it used to be, right?

I lived in Amsterdam when I returned from Europe after a couple of years traveling around Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. That was pretty exotic. Amsterdam wasn't. I rented an apartment, got a job, some friends and lived my life. Hum-drum in a way. The city of Amsterdam employed me in a youth center, het Kosmos, dedicated to non-sectarian meditation. I was a chef, waiter, dishwasher, cashier, manager in the center's macrobiotic restaurant. I had never so much as cooked an egg before I stumbled into the restaurant, looking for a place I could eat healthy food for a dollar or two per meal.

Amsterdam was very welcoming in those days, especially to Americans who didn't want to be living in the country bombing Vietnam, like myself. Someone even made a documentary about my life there-- a war resister in Holland. Believe it or not, Holland is such a conservative society-- but so entirely progressive at the same time. I could never understand the politics there, not for the 4 years I lived there and not since. And not now, as an actual fascist, Geert Wilder-- who has endorsed Trump-- inches closer and closer to the premiership. So on the one hand you have Wilders and on the other... a government advocating vegetarianism as a preferred option and healthy eating that is good for you and, at the same time, environmentally sustainable. Last week, National Geographic pointed out a report from the Dutch government about the relationship between a healthy diet, a healthy planet and the unsuitability of meat in that context-- meat and fish as a matter of fact.
The Netherlands Nutrition Centre says  it is recommending people eat just two servings of meat a week, setting an explicit limit on meat consumption for the first time. The recommendations come five years after a government panel weighed the ecological impact of the average Dutch person’s diet, concluding last year that eating less meat is better for human and environmental health.

The Nutrition Centre, a government-funded program responsible for making food-based dietary guidelines, took those conclusions and presented them on Tuesday in its “Wheel of Five”-- a graphic distributed to the public, along the lines of the U.S. government’s “MyPlate.”

“The new dietary guidelines are implemented in our new education model … in a way that the total environmental impact of the diet is lower than the current consumption,” explains Corné van Dooren, a sustainable food expert at the center. “We focus on eating a less animal-based and more plant-based diet by the unique advice to consume not more than 500 grams of meat a week.”

Of that 500 grams, or about one pound, only 300 grams should be red, or “high-carbon” meat, van Dooren noted, explaining that the guidelines suggest getting protein from other sources, like one 25-gram portion of unsalted nuts a day and one 135-gram portion of pulses a week. Seafood recommendations also get an update.

“The advice for fish is changed from two portions to one portion a week, due to sustainability issues,” van Dooren adds. “One portion is enough to reach the benefits for coronary heart diseases.”

Over the past decade, a handful of countries have started to more seriously consider environmental factors in their official nutrition advice, including the U.S. That’s out of the more than 60 countries that maintain and update nutrition advice, according to the FAO.

“There are just a very few countries that have taken this issue on,” says Kathleen Merrigan, former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, now the executive director of sustainability at George Washington University. “It’s a moving target.”

In 2014, Merrigan helped convene a conference on food sustainability, inviting government nutrition advisers from the Netherlands and Brazil, two of the countries that have worked most intensively on the issue. (In 2012, Brazil set new recommendations that factored in “environmental integrity,” fair trade principles and the eating patterns of indigenous food cultures.)

Other countries that have included sustainability into their nutrition advice, or have seriously contemplated doing so, include Germany, Australia, Sweden, and the U.K.

Many in the U.S., too, embraced the conversation around sustainability when the 15-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee announced in its 2015 report that sustainable diets, lower in meat intake, are also more healthful (see New U.S. Dietary Recommendations First to Consider Environmental Impact.)

But not everyone went for it. The idea that environmental considerations should make their way into nutrition advice has been especially controversial with the livestock industry, which fought against their inclusion. The American livestock industry, for one, successfully argued that sustainability—or specific recommendations to limit meat consumption because of the environmental toll of meat production-- get knocked out of the final Dietary Guidelines. The final guidelines were issued in January (see What’s In America’s New Dietary Guidelines-- and What’s Not).

Just last week, the U.K. issued its latest nutrition advice, recommending a diet lower in red and processed meat.  The move was hailed by nutrition groups,  even as they sought more explicit reductions.

...The new advice, though, was immediately blasted by the livestock industry.

“Blanket messages to reduce red meat consumption could be very detrimental to the diets of consumers who already eat low to moderate amounts of red meat, for example women and young people,” says Emma Derbyshire, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, in British media reports last week. “Lean red meat is rich in protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and selenium and makes an important contribution to daily vitamin and mineral intakes.”

The industry pushback will likely get stronger as more governments turn their attentions to the issue of sustainability in the diet.
I remember a couple of years ago when Jared Polis (D-CO) wrote and introduced H.R. 4870, the Healthy School Meals Act. Polis hoped to offer the option of school kids eating some plant-based food at school meals. Polis told me he isn't a vegan or even a vegetarian. He just wants to make sure that children have a choice, noting that in the past 30 years "the prevalence of overweight in children ages 6 to 19 has tripled and 1 in 5 is struggling with obesity and related conditions like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, which were previously considered adult diseases."

His legislation is based on the fact that children consume too much fat, saturated fat and sodium and don’t get enough fiber, whole grains, fruits or vegetables and that research shows that children who eat school-purchased lunches are more likely to be overweight and obese, and less likely to eat enough fruits and vegetables. So what does the bill do?
Improves children’s eating patterns by encouraging the inclusion of healthful plant-based options in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.

Introduces plant-based foods to schools, increases their availability and affordability, and provides incentives for schools to provide healthful entree options in the lunch line.

Removes restrictions on providing nondairy milk alternatives with school lunches, thus ensuring that all children receive vital nutrients.

I asked Jared if there were any bad guys in this story-- some crackpot Republicans or evil food processing corporations. He told me there weren't. He just hadn't been clobbered by him yet. That came after our chat. Some time ago I was the general manager of Sire Records and one of our artists, k.d. lang, recorded the TV ad below. The cattle and meat processing industries came down on us like a ton of bricks. I've read that they do the same thing to schools that start vegetarian-oriented programs, even if it's just to offer a vegetarian option once a week. Jared's bill didn't pass; he never even got out of committee.

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At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be sure: "children consume too much fat, saturated fat and sodium ... "
However, why is there no mention of the massive, virtually continuous, doses of refined carbohydrates (e.g., the ubiquitous "high fructose corn syrup") ... just as deleterious to human health if not more so?

John Puma

At 12:46 AM, Blogger Cirze said...

I'm packed and ready to go with you.

Bon voyage!

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as teasing out some of the links between Geert Wilder and healthy eating goes, the place to start would be Robert Proctor's The Nazi War on Cancer:

That's not to say that vegetarian = food nazi!!! but only that "healthy" is a complicated word with a complicated history...

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was unaware that there were "restrictions on providing nondairy milk alternatives with school lunches." That just seems bizarre. Meat was once helpful in survival. But we have many alternatives now. And nowhere in human history did we need a "meat industry."
Some people wake up. Some people don't.


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