Healthier diets, better use of resources

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

More Americans eating healthier diets would help the U.S. food system make better use of some natural resources, according to a new federal government report.

Diets consistent with the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans would decrease use of agricultural land, fossil fuels and forest products, though greenhouse gas emissions would remain essentially unchanged and more freshwater would be withdrawn from rivers, lake and aquifers, according to the report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

While it’s always good to focus attention of healthy eating and better use of natural resources, the report has limited value, said a Minnesota sustainable farmer and registered dietitian/nutritionist.

The report doesn’t distinguish between different types of farming practices, focusing only on what’s produced and not on how the food is produced, Mary Jo Forbord said.

Agweek asked the Starbuck, Minn., farmer, who’s also healthy eating coordinator at the University of Minnesota-Morris and a former executive director of Minnesota’s Sustainable Farming Association, for her assessment of the report.

She described it as “a 30,000-foot view” that doesn’t provide enough details to offer much useful analysis.

In any case, ERS researchers compared the “baseline” American diet (what Americans ate in 2007) with what they called a “Healthy American diet” that set calorie targets, food group targets and 33 nutrient targets, as well as including cost constraints on the healthy diet to keep it comparable to the cost of the baseline diet.

Many of the same foods, such as fluid milk, bananas and tortillas, are consumed in both diets, though the quantities vary, according to the report.

In the switch from the baseline to healthy diet, less sugars, sweets, beverages, fats, oil and salad dressings would be consumed, while more legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products would be taken in, the report found.

To estimate resource requirements, ERS researchers developed the Food Environment Data System, which incorporates both dollar units and physical units of measurement. One example cited in the report: Researchers can estimate how much fresh water is used in connection with a home-prepared hamburger, beginning with the water a beef animal drinks and ending with the water used for washing dishes in the kitchen sink.

The report noted that a more complete assessment of resource needs for future U.S. food demand would require evaluating changes in population and in the technology used to raise and market food.

A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service finds that healthy diets also benefit the environment.