For the first time, the group of nutritionists that advises the government on federal dietary standards has taken sustainability into account.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is recommending Americans eat less red meat, and it says that a vegan diet has the least impact on the planet — something that environmentalists have been saying for years. The federal government uses this group’s findings as evidence when it recommends dietary guidelines.

“The organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality, and the average Italian diet had the greatest projected impact,” the panel wrote. “Beef was the single food with the greatest projected impact on the environment; other foods estimated to have high impact included cheese, milk, and seafood.”

The panel outlined the health benefits of three different diets — vegetarian, Mediterranean and a healthy American diet.

“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,” according to the report. “This pattern of eating can be achieved through a variety of dietary patterns, including the Healthy U.S.-style Pattern, the Healthy Mediterranean-style Pattern, and the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern. All of these dietary patterns are aligned with lower environmental impacts and provide options that can be adopted by the U.S. population.”

Naturally, meat industry representatives have criticized the group’s environmental findings, saying that it should focus on health instead of environmental impact. Also, meat is good for you.

But the advisory committee’s chairwoman, Barbara Millen, of the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, said the group wasn’t saying Americans should stop eating meat.

“If people took the time to understand, this is not a meat-free diet and this is not vegan approach, they’d realize this is a healthy dietary pattern with three models that offers consumers a lot of choice,” Millen told The Hill.

Here’s a link to the huge PDF of the report.

Are you a vegan or vegetarian? Tell us why in the comments.

Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the managing editor of the Bangor Daily News. He's an Orland native who moved to Portland in 2002 and now lives in Unity. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the...