Is the US Making Dietary Changes Necessary for Better Health?

The research is clear: a plant-based diet is better for our body and the planet. But are people in the US making dietary changes to keep up with the times?
The research is clear: a plant-based diet is better for our body and the planet. But are people in the US making dietary changes to keep up with the times?

The research is clear: a plant-based diet is better for our body and the planet. But are people in the US making dietary changes to keep up with the times?Allison Aubrey reports on NPR’s food blog, The Salt, that even though major health organizations have come out in favor of a diet based mostly on vegetables, and less on animal foods, US dietary changes are not keeping pace with the evidence. A meat-heavy diet is called the Standard American Diet (SAD) for a reason: our food habits as a nation die hard.

Aubrey writes that our country has one of the highest rate of meat consumption on the planet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the average American eat 71 pounds of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) each year, although an alternate CDC study shows the number at about 50 pounds per person, per year, on average. Whenever I see averages like that, it makes me think of all the vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians that I know. That average is probably a lot higher for people who consider themselves meat eaters.

In a 2012 study, 3,000 Americans were surveyed, and 39 percent said they were ‘eating less meat’ than three years before. In the 2012 study, the main reason was that people were concerned about health, with the second reason being the cost of meat. And in December of 2015, they wanted to run the study again.

In this study, 7.4 percent of respondents said they eat no meat during a typical week (note that this excludes poultry and fish, which  are still meat!)– which is a slight increase from the 2012 study. This leads Aubrey to summarize the findings by saying, “Americans’ meat-eating habits haven’t shifted much.” And Mike Taylor, the Chief Medical Officer for the study says, “There’s no significant change in the number of times per week people eat meat in the last few years.”

However, Roni Neff, the director of the Food System Sustainability and Public Health program at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins disagrees. She says that while the changes are subtle, there is a shift– and one that we’re happy to see.

Neff says, “We are still seeing a lot of people saying they are eating less meat, and a lot who want to eat less meat.” She has her own study underway to measure meat consumption patterns and trends. She’s also trying to gauge whether people are substituting vegetables for meat.

And, maybe even more importantly, Taylor notes that an important marker is that people are eating more vegetables, perhaps in place of meat. He says, “Nearly half [in the 2015 poll] are eating more vegetables, and age, income and education didn’t make a difference.”

So the results are not totally conclusive, and even Aubrey ends her article by writing, “There may be a growing chorus of veggie cheerleaders, but don’t assume everyone is influenced by them.” As a self-described veggie cheerleader myself, I think many changes are afoot, and while it might be hard to capture in studies, people are definitely making changes.

Related: 10 Healthy food Trends for 2016

Most of the food trends we’re seeing support an increased love of veggies. There were also some huge milestones this year. The World Health Organization declared bacon a carcinogen, and even the mainstream media has caught onto the scam that is the meat and dairy industry. Every week a new celebrity is ‘coming out’ as vegan (last I saw were Michelle Pfeiffer and J-Lo), and food activists from across the country support a decrease in meat consumption.

So, I’m pretty hopeful. It may be starting slowly, but there’s a sea change happening across the globe as people realize that the health of our bodies and our planet are inextricably connected. One of my favorite veg-friendly quotes was from Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer; he doesn’t think that 80% of people will go vegetarian, but he does think it’s possible that 80% of meals eaten will be vegetarian. I have long agreed with him, and I think this these studies– and all the good food news we see here everyday– keeps moving us in that direction.

Image Credit: Vegetables photo via Shutterstock

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