A Day in D.C. (A Retrospective)

February 11, 2014

On a crisp Thuirsday in January of 2012, I had the privilege to testify before the USDA with my friend and colleague, Dr. Neal Barnard, president and founder of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. I presented the following comments on the first draft of the USDA dietary guidelines, to be released this December.

I am honored to be here to comment on such an important topic.

It is no secret that our population is in serious trouble with obesity and chronic disease. Epidemics of completely preventable diseases threaten to destroy the very strength of this country.

The draft of new dietary guidelines shows an astute insight into actions needed and if observed by Americans, can dramatically increase our chances of reversing this seemingly irreversible tide.

The proposed guidelines go further than ever before toward guiding the country to a plant-based style of eating, but there are some topics that need addressing so that the new guidelines can correctly inform citizens about the choices available to them to live healthy lives.

While it would be utopian to think that the guidelines would recommend the elimination of meat and other animal products, vegetarian eating needs to become a more attractive option for people. As a 30-year vegan, I can tell you that I am one of millions of people who have no deficiencies nutritionally. I do supplement with vitamin B-12, but otherwise, a well-balanced and varied plant-based diet has served my nutritional needs nicely in my very active life.

In the draft there is plenty of complimentary language supporting the choice of vegetarian eating, but I think that stronger language is needed. In the section dedicated to nutrient adequacy, the question of what nutrients are over and under-consumed is posed.

The answer is easy. Americans eat far too little whole, unprocessed, fresh food, like whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds and far too many of the foods that every expert agrees are stealing their health: processed and cured meats, sugar and other junk food.

The idea is presented that little conclusive evidence exists to support the idea that a plant-based diet can better prevent disease than any other low-fat diet. In fact, there is plenty of research to support this as well as the idea that disease can be reversed with the use of a vegetarian diet and other lifestyle changes. One need only read ‘The China Study’ by T. Colin Campbell, PhD or look at Dr. Dean Ornish, whose work is so effective at treating and reversing disease that it has just been approved for coverage by Medicare. Further proof can be found in America ’s very own ‘Blue Zone’ in Loma Linda , California . Dr Gary Fraser, of Loma Linda University ’s Medical Center discovered that even among the Adventist population, the non-vegetarians had about twice the risk of heart disease than the vegetarians. So they dug deeper and discovered that meat remained the consistent contributor to heart disease, as it would because of the concentrations of saturated fat.

The real problem here in America however lies with marketing and food manufacturers. They seduce the public with fat, sugar and salt to trick the taste buds into wanting more. They make a bigger profit and America loses.

The key to the success of the new guidelines is not fear-mongering but progressive thinking that moves us forward nutritionally speaking. The new guidelines need strong language that promotes the consumption of whole grains, vegetables and beans. And while I personally would love to see animal products, especially processed cured meats and dairy foods completely disappear from this new guidance, powerful lobby groups will never allow that to happen. There is a lot at stake for the manufacturers of animal foods, from subsidies to huge bottom line profits for their sales.

I think it is the role of this committee and the experts in the room to educate consumers as to the best choices for health and to demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle can be delicious, satisfying, affordable and far superior to any meal that’s served in a bucket. Americans are suffering at alarming rates from diseases that are nearly completely preventable and in many cases reversible. But we must free them from the stranglehold of marketing and subsidized foods. We can encourage them to eat their vegetables and fruit until the cows come home, but if it costs more to buy the ingredients to make a salad than to buy a Happy Meal, then all the work, research and findings are for nothing.

This committee has the power to systemically change the relationship Americans have with healthy foods like vegetables and whole grains. Healthy foods must be accessible to all Americans. An endorsement by this committee for healthy eating, with the focus on plant-based nutrition will create consumer demand which in turn will create the changes needed to turn the tide of disease that threatens to swallow us.

The draft that has been released is a great start, but I would respectfully submit that there is much to be done to move the country forward to a state of healthy fitness and a plant-based diet is the foundation upon which we can rebuild that health.

Thank you.

Christina Pirello, MFN
Emmy-Award winning host of ‘Christina Cooks’ on national public television
Best selling cookbook author
Chef Instructor, The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College , Philadelphia , PA

The China Study, T. Colin Campbell, PhD, Benbella Books, June 2006
Healthy at 100, John Robbins, Ballantine Books, August 2007
The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner, National Geographic, April 2009
The Spectrum, Dean Ornish, MD, Ballantine Books, December 2008