I’m currently reading the March/April 2020 issue of Harvard Magazine (122:4), an article about Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Hu explores a range of topics, and the article centers around the intersection of nutrition, health, and the climate. Hu had participated in the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee which resulted in the MyPlate revision of the traditional Food Pyramid. Hu’s experience with longitudinal studies informed his work in the group, moving to issue concrete guidelines about food servings. The collaboration expanded from citing the health impacts of dietary decisions to reinforcing their argument with a consideration of the environmental impact of current–and potential, revised–diets across the nation. MyPlate, Hu comments, reflects the influence of corporate lobbyists on the final draft of the governmental guidelines, for example including more red meat, processed meat, and dairy than the science recommends. (For the 2020 revision, the scientist advisors were not even given the opportunity to steer their work, instead being issued a questionnaire by USDA and HHS.)
I want to hang the Healthy Eating Plate in my school cafeteria, to help students have access to the best information! For families too, I want the school to be a source of information and trusted guidelines. I will consult with my district’s Nutrition Director to ensure that hanging a “competing” poster will not jeopardize federal funding first though, because that is the way of things in the United States.
Hu’s studies found that folks who ate a half serving or less of red meat or processed meat had significant mortality risk improvement. Even more, he found studies showing the impact of a more vegetable-based diet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental conditions worldwide.
“Without considering the health of the population, or the health of the community, it’s not really meaningful to talk about personal health,” Hu says. “In the same vein, without considering the health of our planet, I think it’s really futile to talk about the health of the human population. They are all interrelated and intertwined, and they have to be considered and looked at simultaneously rather than separately.” (pg. 36)
Schools have an opportunity to influence students’ diets significantly. The goal would not be to coerce students to eat healthy by offering limited, nutritious menu options, but rather to enrich their choices and to make healthy choices more appealing. A bountiful salad bar, for example, would attract more diners than a tiny cup of kale leaves, but it would also offer something they could more likely encounter in their real lives.
More information–in the form of announcements, signs, and other educational forums–would help everyone make better decisions. Rather than quietly replacing snacks with whole-grain versions of the same thing, why not take the opportunity to explain what they are and why they offer a healthier alternative. Chances are, more kids will encourage their parents/guardians to make healthier food purchases if they know what they’ve eaten, why it is better for them, and what they liked.
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For more information, visit: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/