As the digital media bubble pops, journalism is in "panic" mode. Read our take.
Senior Research Editor
Maddie writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and culture. She oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.
Should the new Dietary Guidelines—the advice the federal government issues every five years on what constitutes a healthy diet—include recommendations about what makes for a healthy planet? The meat industry sure doesn't think so.
The industry started flipping out when it saw some of the language in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's February report: "Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods...and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average US diet."
Big Meat takes issue with two main things:
1) That the committee's scientists dared to comment on environmental sustainability issues in a nutrition report.
2) That the report said (elsewhere) that a healthy diet should be lower in red and processed meats.
The film focuses on the health merits of meat, arguing that it trumps other foods because, unlike plants, "animal proteins are considered complete proteins, or ideal proteins." Never mind that plenty of other accessible and cheap vegetarian foods, including rice and beans, or buckwheat, also provide complete proteins.
One calorie of beef requires 18 times the amount of fuel to produce as one calorie of grain.
But the video does not try to refute the notion that meat's environmental footprint is cause for concern—the UN argues, for instance, that livestock produce 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Dietary Guidelines' committee points out that producing one calorie of beef requires 18 times as much fuel as producing one calorie of grain.
It's no coincidence that the committee chose to flag the carbon footprint of our food: The guidelines are ultimately about people's relationship with food, and the deterioration of the environment's health is a blow to our food security. "Meeting current and future food needs," the committee notes, will depend on changing the way people eat and developing agricultural and production practices "that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."
So will the Dietary Guidelines retain this responsible language when they are officially published this fall by the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture? On Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that he could not rule out the chance that the final version will mention sustainability, but he implied that he would steer clear of doling out environmental advice. He told the Wall Street Journal:
"Our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that's what the law says. I think it's my responsibility to follow the law."
The law or the money? The AP has reported that meat processing and livestock industries spent $7 million on lobbying and donated $5 million to members of Congress during the last election cycle.
In March every year, the streets of India and Nepal come alive with color. Kids douse each other with water guns full of paint; ashrams explode with clouds of rainbow powder; friends lob water balloons bursting with chartreuse, ochre, fuchia, and violet. All to celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival marking the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil.
Girls dance at the Pagal Baba Ashram in Vrindivan, Uttar Pradesh Deepack Malik/ZUMA
Holi in the Borobazar area of Calcutta KM Asad/ZUMA
But peaceful Holi revelry can be harder to come by for some Indian women. The wild celebrations often encourage sexual harassment; "it's almost like one gigantic frat party," says radio producer Deepak Singh, of KOSU. Some men see it as an opportunity to "get drunk and rowdy and grope women," he says. When I lived with a family in Jaipur, Rajasthan, we were warned away from joining the street mob during the Holi festival for fear of this type of behavior.
A girl at Pagal Baba Ashram in Vrindivan, Uttar Pradesh Deepak Malik/ZUMA
Three friends smear each other with powder in the Borobazar area of Calcutta KM Asad/ZUMA
And tens of millions of widows in India find Holi completely off-limits, as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports. "In some parts of the culture, the women are seen as the cause of their husband's death," she writes, and they are discouraged from partaking in the festivities. Still, many widows buck tradition and party anyway. This year, McCarthy observed a gleeful group of widows "cavorting in the chaos of color" during a Holi party in Vrindavan, known as the City of Widows.
Widows dance during a March 3, 2015 Holi party at Meerasahabhagini Ashram in Vrindivan KM Asad/ZUMA
A widow doused in colored powder celebrates Holi at Meerasahabhagini Ashram KM Asad/ZUMA
Remember your high school prom? Now imagine, for the slow dance, the class nerd—pale, big glasses, a little chubby—walked on stage and belted out the most exquisite Otis Redding cover you'd ever heard. That's what came to mind when I saw Paul Janeway, the lead singer of St. Paul & the Broken Bones, perform at the Fillmore in San Francisco over Valentine's Day weekend. Featuring Janeway's wrenching vocals plus sizzling guitar, horns, and rhythm, the tight and explosive seven-piece Broken Bones banded together in Birmingham, Alabama, and released their first EP in 2012. They've since appeared on Letterman and at Bonnaroo, and released a full album, Half the City, produced by the keyboardist from the Alabama Shakes.
Though his passionate tunes will surely inspire steamy encounters, Janeway's roots are pure: He learned to sing at his Pentecostal-leaning church. So it might come as a surprise that the band's song "Call Me" was included in Fifty Shades of Grey, the film based on E.L. James' erotic BDSM novel.
Decked out in a crisp navy suit, a red satin pocket square, and flashy gold shoes, Janeway charged through Redding numbers during his Fillmore set, as well as a dance-worthy cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" and a killer version of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Let Me Roll It." The Broken Bones' gospel-infused originals kept the audience swaying through the show, and delivered proof that classic soul lives on through more than just covers.
"I had no idea what it was. Then I saw a preview for it, and I was like, 'Oh shit. Oh no. What have I done?'"
I spoke with Janeway the morning after his latest San Francisco show.
Mother Jones: You've said: "My goal in life until I was about 18 years old was to be a preacher." What was your first reaction to learning that your song would be in Fifty Shades of Grey?
Paul Janeway: [Laughs.] All right, my first Fifty Shades of Grey question! When they presented the licensing opportunity, they presented it as: It's going to be a huge movie, they want to put a decent amount of the song in the movie in a nonsexual scene.
I knew it was a book, but I had no idea what it was. So I was like, sure, big movie, good exposure. I'll be in this romantic comedy. Which is what I thought it was: a romantic comedy. It's a good way to make money in the music business, you know. Then I saw a preview for it, and I was like, "Oh, shit. Oh, no. What have I done?"
To me it's kind of funny. I'm glad it's in a nonsexual scene to be honest with you, not for my sake but for my family's sake. I don't have any moral things about it. It's not like we're in the movie—it's just a song for a minute.
MJ: My friend had heard some of your songs but didn't know much about you. When we first walked in show, his first words were: "Wow, it's just a bunch of white dudes." Do you get that a lot?
PJ: Yeah, a little bit. It is interesting that people get kind of shocked by that, I guess. I don't ever really think about that because it's just music that we love. We're from Alabama, and if you look at the Muscle Shoals Swampers, that was just a bunch of white dudes. They wrote some of the best soul music ever written. I think if people don't know the musical history, I think they're like, "Oh?!"
MJ: I didn't realize you were so theatrical: You were humping the speakers at one point, throwing down the mic. Did that dramatic side start before you became a singer, or has music brought it out of you?
PJ: That's always been something I've been attracted to. I love Broadway musicals. Really for me, as St. Paul, it's an exaggeration of my personality put on to the max. It's just ridiculous. I don't typically climb on speakers in real life. It's an adventure within the show—like, okay, here's something to climb on. The first night [in San Francisco] I got on the really tall speaker and got really scared. I'm like, I'm not doin' that the second night!
In Dallas one time, it wasn't well-lit on the stage. I jumped in front of the horn mics and I couldn't see the stage or the monitor. So I tripped over the monitor and took out both horn mics, the trombone player broke his slide out. I thought I broke my ankle, but it was just really badly bruised.
MJ: You sing so much about love and affection: How do you get in the mood if your personal life is making you feel down or cynical?
PJ: I got married seven weeks ago. It's weird because I'm very happy, and some of the songs are about heartbreak. I'm not really heartbroken. When it's show time, when you have a song that's danceable, it's easy to sing about love and sex.
"'Try a Little Tenderness' is a monster of a song. I don't know why we have the guts to do it. It's sacred territory."
It's really the ones about heartbreak and sadness that are difficult to handle because I have to get to a place mentally during the song that's not really where I want to be. We have this song called "Broken Bones and Pocket Change": Sometimes I get really emotional, and I have to take a break, 20 seconds to be like, "Okay, we're done with that one." You want the song to have the same meaning it had when you sang it the first time.
MJ: You really belt. How do you take care of your voice?
PJ: A lot of Coca-Cola. [Laughs]. That's not really good for you, but I do drink a lot of Coke. I don't drink alcohol; I don't smoke. I never have in my 31 years on the planet. I do vocal warm-ups. I use this spray called Entertainer's Secret. And sleep. The thing is, I can sleep 12 to 13 hours. It's pretty vital to the rejuvenation of the voice. You do it night in and night out, your voice has to recuperate, it's key. I think if I was a hard partier, I think it would be a lot tougher. But I'm not; I'm pretty lame.
MJ: I think I heard you say on stage that Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" was the best soul song of all times.
PJ: It's definitely one of the best. As a song live, you can't follow it. I think Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and then a William Bell song, "I Forgot to Be Your Lover." Those three songs to me—it's kind of like picking your favorite kid though.
"Try a Little Tenderness" is an old song. But as far as Otis Redding's execution, it's one of the best executions ever. Live, it's a monster of a song. I don't know why we have the guts to do it. It's sacred territory. I think when we were starting out, we were too stupid to think about that. We just loved the song. We were like, we know this is a classic: If you can't measure yourself to that, you don't need to be doin' this.
MJ: Let's talk about the art of the carefully selected pocket squares. Do you pick your own?
PJ: I do, I do. I've actually lost quite a few at this point. They end up in my book bag or somewhere else. There was a really great one, that was like lacy, almost like panties. It was pink. That was the best pocket square I've ever had, but I cannot find it. It was amazing.
I actually handle all that stuff myself. Those gold shoes are the only thing I like wearing—they are just flashy enough to make me feel good about doin' it.
MJ: What's the red pin you're always wearing?
PJ: It says Alabama. It's an Alabama football thing. It's my code way to stayin' real tied to the state of Alabama—a little piece of home.
Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the nutrition controversies surrounding the release of new United States Dietary Guidelines in 2015. The Guidelines, which inform public health initiatives, food labels, and what health-conscious parents decide to make for dinner, are revised every five years, with help from a scientific committee.
Today, that committee released its initial scientific report, an extensive 572-page tome on all the current thinking about healthy diets.
So what are we eating—and what should we be eating—in 2015?
Perhaps the biggest change this year could breathe some life into your breakfast habits: The cholesterol in egg yolks is no longer as much of a health concern. The US Dietary Guidelines used to recommend that you eat no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day, or under two large eggs. But this year, the committee has scrapped that advice as new research suggests that the cholesterol you consume in our diets has little to do with your blood cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans fats, on the other hand, could boost your blood cholesterol levels, as could unlucky genes.
The committee found that Americans lack vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber in their diets. We also eat too few whole grains. On the other hand, we eat far too much sodium and saturated fat. Two-thirds of people over age 50, those most at risk for cardiovascular disease, still eat more than the upper limit, or 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat.
Gardeners, rejoice: The committee applauds vegetables in its latest report, describing them as "excellent sources of many shortfall nutrients and nutrients of public health concern." Unfortunately, our veggie intake has declined in recent years, especially for kids. Only 10 percent of toddlers eats the recommended 1 cup of vegetables a day.
Added sugars, which make up 13.4 percent of our calorie intake every day, contribute to obesity, cavities, high blood pressure, and potentially cardiovascular disease. If you are in tip top shape, the committee suggests keeping your added sugar consumption under 10 percent of your daily energy intake, or roughly 12 teaspoons (including fruit juice concentrates and syrups). But for most people, the report adds, the ideal amount of added sugars is between 4.5 to 9.4 teaspoons a day, depending on your BMI.
Most adults are fine to keep drinking alcohol in moderation—one cup a day for women, and up to two for men. "However," writes the the committee, "it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits."
Be it máte, espresso, or chai, your caffeine habit is fine in moderation, up to 400 mg a day (3-5 cups of coffee). But before you start handing out the Rockstars: The committee found evidence that high levels of caffeine, such as those found in energy drinks, are harmful to kids and pregnant women. (Plus: See above for the danger of the added sugars found in many of these energy drinks).
Seafood is a pretty healthy thing to eat from a dietary standpoint, and concerns about mercury don't outweigh the health benefits of eating fish, according to the committee. And yet, the collapse of fisheries due to overfishing "has raised concern about the ability to produce a safe and affordable supply." The report suggests that both farm-raised and wild caught seafood will be needed to feed us in the future.
The committee found that a diet "higher in plant-based foods...and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet." A group of 49 environmental and animal-welfare groups sent a letter to the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to urge them to embrace this sustainability-oriented message in their Dietary Guidelines, which are set to be released later in 2015.
Every five years, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) get together to revise their recommendations about what Americans should eat. These guidelines influence doctors' health advice, food labels, the ever evolving food pyramid-turned-plate, and what goes into school lunches. For instance, in 2010, a time when more than half of adults were overweight or obese, the agencies recommended things like drinking water instead of sugary beverages, filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, cutting sodium, and just eating less in general.
It's 2015, so time for some new advice. The guidelines draw on input from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), which will publish a report sometime this winter. So what are the hottest items under debate this year? Here's a run-down of what to look for in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans report:
The meat vs. plants showdown: It probably comes as no surprise that Americans eat a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and full of too many solid fats. In fact, vegetable consumption was on the decline between 2001 and 2010 even as each of us now eat 202.3 pounds of meat a year; a bit less red meat than a few years ago but more poultry than ever before. In the past, the government has warned against overdoing it with red meat and urged people to chow down on lean meats like chicken and fish instead. But this year, for the first time, the committee might caution against overconsumption of all kinds of meat—and not just for health reasons, but also because of meat's environmental footprint. Livestock operations now produce 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Eating fewer animal-based foods "is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact," the committee suggested in its draft report.
Raising livestock now comprises 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
Which of course has ruffled the meat industry. Removing lean meat from healthy diet recommendations is "stunning," read a recent statement by the North American Meat Institute. "The committee's focus on sustainability is questionable because it is not within the committee's expertise."
Cholesterol is back: Your body makes its own cholesterol but you also get some when you eat animal fats, including eggs. Previous guidelines warned that too much of the waxy substance in the blood leads to higher risk of heart disease, and recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. But this year's guidelines might downplay dietary cholesterol's risk, marking the comeback of the daily omelet. The DGAC's December meeting notes stated that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
"We now know that cholesterol in the diet makes very little difference in terms of bad cholesterol in the blood," University of Pennsylvania's molecular biologist Dan Rader told Forbes. People get high cholesterol in the blood because of their genes or because the body's mechanisms for cleaning out blood cholesterol aren't working properly, he explains.
"Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."
We've been cautioned against cholesterol in our diets for the last fifty years, ever since the American Heart Association warned about it in 1961, reports the Washington Post. But in late 2013, a task force including the AHA found "insufficient evidence" in studies it reviewed to warn most people against eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs, shellfish, and red meat.
Put down the soda: I repeat: Put down the soda. Americans consume way too much added sugar, 22 to 30 teaspoons a day by some estimates, or nearly four times the healthy limits proposed by the AHA. And sugar-sweetened drinks account for nearly half of these added sugars. As Mother Joneshas reported over the years, these jolts of added sugar have been linked with obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a whole host of other ailments.
The World Health Organization turned heads last year when it reduced its recommendation about healthy added sugar intake from roughly 12 teaspoons to around 6 teaspoons a day (aka less than one can of Coke). The Dietary Guidelines might not go that far, but this year the committee will likely propose limits on added sugar for the first time: No more than 10 percent of your daily energy should come from added sugar, the committee suggests, which comes out to about 12 teaspoons a day for an adult with an average BMI.
Not sure how we feel about salt: "Sodium is ubiquitous in the food supply," noted the Committee in its December meeting notes. The 2010 Guidelines recommended that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a far cry from the 3,400 mg we inhale on average. The Guidelines also suggested that certain at-risk groups like people over age 51 and diabetics should eat less than 1,500 mg a day.
But while a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine stated that reducing sodium intake is important for heart health, it also pointed to recent research suggesting that "sodium intakes that are low may increase health risks—particularly in certain groups"—like people with diabetes or kidney disease. The report asserted that there's no evidence of benefits in reducing sodium intake to 1,500 mg for these subgroups or for the general population. While the Committee seems to want to warn people off sodium-laden diets for the 2015 guidelines, given these mixed findings about levels it seems unlikely that it will set a new defined limit.