My Plate, My Planet: Shifting to a Sustainable Diet

My Plate, My Planet: Shifting to a Sustainable Diet

March 24, 2015

As we collectively awaken to the gravity of our ecological crises, more people are beginning to talk about the relationship between our diets and climate change. It turns out that our heavy consumption of animal-based foods is not only causing problems like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, but our meat and dairy-dominated diets are also putting tremendous pressure on our environmental systems through greenhouse emissions, fresh water depletion, and deforestation.

One of the most influential frameworks related to food choice is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans - a.k.a. the “Food Pyramid,” or what is now called “MyPlate.” This model gives people a simple way to gauge what to eat and how much to eat. It directly influences the 5.5 billion school lunches served annually, thus making it an important lynchpin in the effort to instill healthy and sustainable eating habits for future generations. 

“School lunches must meet meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” - National School Lunch Program (NSLP) Fact Sheet, USDA

Sadly, the Food Pyramid / MyPlate dietary guidelines are subject to intense lobbying from corporate interests, including from groups like the National Dairy Council, the Soft Drink Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Wheat Foods Council.

“Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating.” - Walter Willett, Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health 

But here’s the good news: the Food Pyramid / MyPlate guidelines get updated every 5 years, and a new version is just around the corner. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is tasked with recommending to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) what revisions should be made based on the latest scientific research. The DGAC has just released their 2015 recommendations and, for the first time ever, the committee is recommending that sustainability criteria be included in the new guidelines, along with an increased emphasis on plant-based foods:

“The major findings regarding sustainable diets were 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… Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use….” - Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Executive Summary

This development offers positive hope for a policy shift that would have tremendous benefits for our health, children, and environment. 

Of course, there is push back from the meat and dairy industry, and now it’s up to the USDA, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, and HHS, led by Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to decide how to implement the committee’s 2015 Scientific Report recommendations. The issue is open to public comment right now for a limited time.

My Plate, My Planet

A coalition of over 100 forward-looking environmental organizations and experts have joined together to express their support for the committee’s sustainability proposals. Spearheaded by Food Choice Task ForceFriends of the Earth, Center for Biological DiversityJohns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and many others, these groups have endorsed an open letter at My Plate, My Planet to the USDA and HHS, and are launching a national campaign to shine more light on this critical matter.

If enough people take notice and make their voices heard, we could be on the cusp of an important policy shift that will help our children lead healthier lives and directly contribute to a more sustainable planet. If we fail, we could be looking at another 5 years of misinformation guiding our dietary habits, which will perpetuate severely negative impacts on our well-being and environment.

Dear Secretaries Burwell and Vilsack:

The following organizations and individuals urge you to adopt the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendations on sustainability… As Americans, we rely on our government to provide accurate, science-based information that promotes the health of our families and our environment.

The undersigned support the sustainability recommendations of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee calling for less meat and more plants in our diets for the sake of our health and the planet.

- Open Letter from My Plate, My Planet

These groups are now calling on your support:

Here are some of the organizations and individuals who have expressed their solidarity with the committee’s recommendations to include sustainability criteria in the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine
  • Animal Welfare Institute
  • Brighter Green
  • Center for Agriculture and Food Systems, Vermont Law School
  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Center for Climate Change and Health
  • Center for Food Safety
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • Center for Social Inclusion
  • Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan
  • Change Food
  • Changing Tastes
  • Climate Reality Project
  • Coalition for Healthy School Food
  • Compassion in World Farming
  • Conservation International
  • Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation
  • Earth Day Network
  • Ecology Center
  • Environmental Working Group
  • Factory Farming Awareness Coalition
  • Farmworker Association of Florida
  • First Nations Development Institute
  • Food and Water Watch
  • Food Democracy Now!
  • Food Revolution Network
  • Food Tank
  • Friends of the Earth U.S.
  • Genesee Dietetic Association
  • Global Green USA
  • GRACE Communications Foundation
  • Green America
  • Greenpeace USA
  • Health Care Without Harm
  • Healthy Food Action
  • Institute for a Sustainable Future
  • Institute for Agriculture
  • John Hopkins Center For a Livable Future
  • Laurie M. Tisch Center, Columbia University
  • League of Conservation Voters
  • Mississippi Association of Cooperatives
  • Namaste Foundation
  • National WIC Association
  • Natural Resources Defense Council
  • Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society
  • Organic Consumers Association
  • Pesticide Action Network North America
  • Rainforest Action Network
  • Real Food For Kids
  • Roots of Change
  • Rural Advancement Fund
  • Rural Coalition/Coalición Rural
  • Science and Environmental Health Network
  • Sierra Club
  • Slow Food California Policy Committee
  • Slow Food USA
  • Socially Responsible Agricultural Project
  • The Carbon Underground
  • The Humane Society of the United States
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Virgin Unite
  • Well.Org
  • James Cameron, Lightstorm Entertainment
  • Suzy Amis Cameron, MUSE School
  • Tom Colicchio, Chef
  • Tim Crosby, Thread Fund
  • Kristy Del Coro, Nutritionist
  • Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue
  • Prof. Gidon Eshel, Bard College
  • Kathy Freston, Author
  • Prof. Christopher Gardner, Stanford University
  • Rev. Douglas A. Greenaway, National WIC Association
  • Dr. Helen Harwatt, Loma Linda University
  • Dr. Martin C. Heller, University of Michigan
  • Graham Hill,
  • Fred Kirschenmann, Stone Barns
  • Pamela Koch, Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy
  • Dr. Linnea Laestadius, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Anna Lappé, Small Planet Insitute
  • Francis Moore Lappé, Small Planet Institute
  • Prof. Diana Liverman, Geographer
  • Bill McKibben, Author
  • Kathleen Merrigan, George Washington University
  • Kimball Musk, Kitchen Community
  • Prof. Marion Nestle, New York University
  • Robyn O’Brien, Author
  • Dr. Dean Ornish, University of California, San Francisco
  • Prof. Raj Patel, University of Texas at Austin
  • Prof. Bill Ripple, Oregon State University
  • John Robbins, Author
  • Maria Rodale, Rodale Inc
  • Eric Schlosser, Author
  • Laura Turner Seydel, Captain Planet Foundation
  • Michele Simon, Food Lawyer
  • Dr. Gunhild A. Stordalen, EAT
  • Prof. David Tilman, University of Minnesota

How You Can Help

You can make a difference by contributing to the public comments on the website. Tell policy makers to include sustainable criteria in the new dietary guidelines:


When submitting your comments, check the following boxes under “Topics:”

  • “Part A: Executive Summary”
  • “Chapter D.5: Food Sustainability and Safety” 
  • “General Comment / Other”

You can also help by signing this petition organized by Friends of the Earth.

More Information

From the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Food Sustainability and Safety:

“The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss. The capacity to produce adequate food in the future is constrained by land use, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, and over-fishing of the marine environment. Climate change, shifts in population dietary patterns and demand for food products, energy costs, and population growth will continue to put additional pressures on available natural resources. Meeting current and future food needs will depend on two concurrent approaches: altering individual and population dietary choices and patterns and developing agricultural and production practices that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources, while still meeting food and nutrition needs.”

Tell policy makers that you support sustainable food choice. 

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