Imagining Dietary Guidelines for Sea Lions

Written by Dr. David l. Katz, MD, MPH
Imagine there were dietary guidelines for, say, seals and sea lions. Imagine further that those guidelines effectively said: eat caviar!
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The argument might be- presumably greatly aided and abetted by the Caviar Lobby, running on the very high profit margins of their product: caviar is nutrient rich, full of the omega-3 fat all sea lions need.   Besides, everyone loves caviar, so – eat caviar!

And so, however fishy the influence of profiteering, the memo is received and dutifully translated into policy: “let the sea lions eat caviar” takes its place in the ranks of sea lion dietary gospel.

Then, the message reverberates out much further than that.  The very groups that sought (bought?) this inclusion in the first place now react as if delighted to discover it, as if it is some happy surprise.  The Royal Order of The EGGceedingly Fishy Sea Lion Feeders never hints that they did all they could to manipulate the guidelines.  They simply point to the guidelines they helped shape under the influence of something that rhymes with “funny” but really isn’t- and say: see!

They, and others like them, proceed to run richly-funded ad campaigns, peddling their product as the one, true dietary panacea for sea lions, invoking the Sea Lion Dietary Guidelines to validate their claim.  And so the circle is complete.  Trade groups wanting to sell fish eggs manipulated the dietary guidelines so they could be used to sell more fish eggs, make more money, and manipulate the next iteration of sea lion dietary guidance ever more effectively.

All in favor, flap your flippers.

Sadly, this scenario is not imaginary.  We are the sea lions.  The caviar is a stand-in for meat.  The omega-3 is a stand-in for protein.  The lobbyists are standing in for… the usual suspects.

Despite knee-jerk ad hominem criticisms, and profit-motivated counter-arguments, the Eat-Lancet Commission Report on diet for the health of people and planet alike was NOT written by a tribe of ideological vegans.  I know many of those involved personally- and they are certainly not all vegan.  They are some of the world’s best health and sustainability scientists.  They are also some of the best people I’ve ever met, devoted citizens of the world- looking out for us all, and weathering the slings and arrows of outrageous reactions as required to say and do what’s right.  Their conclusion that modern countries around the world must reduce meat intake by over 90% to remain within the boundaries of sustainability related to water use, land use, and greenhouse gas emissions- is not a conclusion they were happy to reach.  It just happens to be true.

We speak of protein as the caviar-peddlers above speak of omega-3: as if it is best to get it from its one, most concentrated source.  But just as almost any assembly of sea lion foods provides sea lions with all of the omega-3 they need, so too, up here on dry land, for protein.  Any, even vaguely complete diet in America- including any balanced, plant-exclusive (vegan) diet- readily provides all of the protein, in quantity and quality, each of us needs every day.

At a public session last week, the Director of the True Health Initiative addressed the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in Washington, DC.  She reminded them that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are about recommending those foods and dietary patterns that most decisively promote health, prevent disease, add years to lives, and add life to years.  She told them as well- in the company of major medical organizations– that effects on the planet and climate and sustainable food production- ARE health effects, too.  Perhaps indirect, and perhaps over a bit more time- but health effects, just the same.  There are no healthy people on a ruined planet incapable of feeding them.

There were many like-minded colleagues in that auditorium, making related comments.  But, of course, the beef lobby was there, too- with all kinds of money to spend on…business as usual.

We are the sea lions, and yes- there is something insidiously fishy about our dietary guidelines.  Unless we learn to see through the swirl of marketing campaigns invoking dietary guidelines those marketing dollars corrupted in the first place, there will soon be no fish in our sea.  And our hungry pups will have us, in our gullible and perhaps gluttonous multitudes, to thank for that.

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