The Republican war on vegetables: How new dietary guidelines brought out the GOP's inner petulant child

Experts say to cut down on meat for the sake of our health and the environment. Republicans react like 3-year-olds

Published June 26, 2015 5:59PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP//J. Scott Applewhite/<a href=''>vbarrio</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson/AP//J. Scott Applewhite/vbarrio via iStock/Photo montage by Salon)

New recommendations released earlier this year by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), an independent group of doctors and nutritionists, say we should cut down on meat for the sake of our health and the environment. In response, congressional Republicans are throwing a temper tantrum.

But because "you can't make us eat more fruits and vegetables" sounds kind of petulant, they're pretending their objections are all about the science.

The report, which informs the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that are updated every five years, found 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." This is the first time the sustainability of our dietary choices has been taken into consideration by the DGAC; according to the report, it is “essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations.”

Yet the move has predictably been met with hostility, particularly on the part of the meat industry, which accused the recommendations of being "flawed" and "nonsensical."

Republicans agree. This past Wednesday, the House approved two spending bills that would completely alter the way the government is permitted to adapt the DGAC's evidence-based recommendations. They do so by raising that standard of evidence: the agencies that form the Dietary Guidelines, they say, can only rely on the very strongest science in these matters. The DGAC rates its evidence on a three-level scale -- "strong," "moderate" and "limited" -- and the science supporting a plant-based diet was deemed "moderate": too low, by the bills' standards, to be relevant.

The bills are, in effect, a giant roadblock to progress pushed through under the guise of reasonability. That's because the term "strong," as defined by the DGAC, is an extremely difficult ideal to obtain -- it's only when a large number of studies are able to reach near-uniform conclusions that any piece of evidence will be granted that classification. According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, straightforward health advice included in past guidelines, like "try to spend less time sitting in front of the T.V." and "eat less fast food," would fail to quality under the new standards House Republicans are demanding. This new directive to "eat more fruits and vegetables," for that matter, also seems pretty common-sensical.

“Research evolves and we expect it to change,” panel chairman Barbara Millen told the Associated Press in defense of recommendations that rely on "moderate" evidence. “That doesn’t negate the importance of a large body of consistent data that may have limitations of a certain kind.”

The riders, along with a similar bill passed last week by a Senate subcommittee, also require that the guidelines "shall be limited in scope to only matters of diet and nutrient intake" -- that excludes consideration of whether one's diet is actively harming the environment, as well as policy recommendations for how the dietary and fitness advice should be implemented. But hey, at least our hamburgers would be safe.

Just what is it that has Republicans crying, "Let them eat steak?" It's likely, in part, a Ron Swanson-style attempt to preserve the "classic" American meat and potatoes diet. Surely, it is apiece with a pattern of redefining nutrition to fit an agenda that extends back to Reagan's infamous (only somewhat apocryphal) "ketchup is a vegetable" controversy. And as Ariana Eunjung Cha writes at the Washington Post, it's probably not a coincidence that the majority of the meat industry's political contributions go to the GOP. It's safe to say the outcry isn't actually about the science, because as anyone who's following the climate change "debate" knows well, Republicans are happy to reject even the most rigorous of scientific evidence when it challenges their ideology.

But the argument for why we should consider cutting down on meat in favor of plants has become more and more convincing, and it defies a number of food myths that vegetarians (ahem) are constantly having to answer for: most prominently, the idea that you can't get enough protein without meat. In a recent talk held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sustainable Foods Institute, Stanford University scientist Christopher Gardner and food systems consultant Arlin Wasserman destroyed that misconception: Plant-based foods, they told a somewhat surprised audience (of food and nutrition folks, no less), are more than capable of meeting human requirements for the essential amino acids. When put on the spot, that same audience was at a loss as to how much protein the average American requires per day -- the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is about 50 grams. Yet we consume, on average, twice that amount: a full 50 grams of unnecessary excess that aside from being unhealthy is hastening climate change and contributing to a whole host of other environmental problems.

It's well-known by now that meat, as a food source, is inefficient. But what was most shocking about Gardner and Wasserman's presentation was just how big of an impact cutting down on meat -- not, crucially, cutting it out altogether -- could have. If Americans started sticking to the RDA of protein -- more than enough to meet their needs -- and they sourced 25 percent of that protein from plants, they said, the equivalent savings in carbon dioxide emissions would constitute 27 percent of the U.S.'s greenhouse gas reduction goal. It would be, to put it another way, the equivalent of "turning off the U.K."

That's an astounding benefit, even if it isn't one that's likely to resonate with Republican leadership. But when anyone fights this hard against something this simple, it's worth asking whose interests they're really trying to protect.

By Lindsay Abrams

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