Advocates of plant-based diets, including several people who claimed they had improved their health significantly by adopting them, showed up in force Thursday to make the case that the federal government should radically modify its nutritional advice. 

“Decades of research have shown that shifting to a plant-based diet provides an array of health benefits in chronic disease prevention and promotes healthy growth at all stages of life, including pregnancy and lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes,” said Sherene Chou, a dietitian speaking for the Plant-Based Foods Association, told members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. 

“When patients eat more plants and less animals, there’s a decrease in morbidity,” said Neil Cooper, a doctor with Kaiser Permanente in Georgia.

And Eric Adams, Brooklyn, N.Y., Borough President, said he had lost sight in one of his eyes from Type 2 diabetes when he went on a whole-foods, plant-based diet. His eyesight returned after three weeks.

The public comments came on the second day of a two-day meeting of the DGAC, which is charged with developing science-based recommendations for the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, who will finalize the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans next year. The DGAC’s report is due to the secretaries in May 2020.

About 80 people spoke at the meeting at USDA, including nutritionists, medical doctors, and representatives of a variety of commodity groups such as pulses, beef and other meats, and dairy, which came in for its share of criticism.

“We urge you to remove dairy as a food group,” said Amie Hamlin of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a New York group that promotes plant-based foods. 

But representatives from the National Milk Producers Federation and National Dairy Council said milk and dairy products are an inexpensive source for a host of essential nutrients, and urged the committee to maintain dairy as a separate food category in the guidelines.

“Dairy foods are nutrient-rich products and irreplaceable in the diet if we want to meet the DGA- recommended nutrient requirements,” said Miquela Hanselman, manager of regulatory affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation.

“The most recent research on the benefits of dairy consumption continue to show dairy’s role in reducing the risk of chronic disease including a reduced risk of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” she said.

Meat consumption also was a hot topic at the meeting, with many speakers urging the committee to continue recommending people eat less processed meat. “If adults were following science-based recommendations to eat little to no processed meat, we could prevent 4,000 deaths from colorectal cancer and save $1.5 billion in health care spending,” said Sarah Reinhardt, lead analyst of food systems and health at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Clara Lau, director of human nutrition research for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said, however, that “beef can be the principal protein food in heart-healthy diets such as DASH and the Mediterranean-style pattern. Over 20 gold standard studies have shown that beef contributes favorably to heart health, and other positive health outcomes.”

“During pregnancy and the early years of life, beef delivers the necessary protein, zinc, choline,

B vitamins and iron which leading health organizations such as [the American Academy of Pediatrics] recognize for supporting physical growth and neurocognitive development in infants and children,” Lau said.

DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

Casey Gallimore, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, said nutrients in beef, poultry, lamb and fish are easily absorbed and used by the body.

Many speakers emphasized the importance of getting the word out to people about healthy diets.

“More than ever, we need evidence-based Dietary Guidelines, but we also need strategies and funding and a commitment to implement them so that all Americans can make healthier decisions for ourselves and our families,” said Pepin Tuma, senior director of government and regulatory affairs at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Tuma urged the committee to use all the time it has to produce a good product. “The DGAC charter was issued in October of 2018 for a period of two years,” he said. “Take the entire two years. You have the new and added responsibility of [birth to 24 months] recommendations and significant new evidence in the literature. Take all the time you’re allotted and get it right rather than getting it — artificially and arbitrarily — fast.”

One way for the committee to ensure better results is to use “high-quality external systematic reviews and meta-analyses in its evidence review process,” Reinhardt said. Unlike previous iterations of the DGA, this time around the committee has been told not to use such external reviews.

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