Meat is expensive at the supermarket or butcher shop. But when experts anallyze what the meat-centered American diet costs the nation’s health-care system, the price goes sky-high: $29 billion to $61 billion a year. These figures come from a report issued by Neal D. Barnard, M.D., and other members of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes health through nutrition.

As mind-boggling as these figures are, Dr. Barnard insists that they are conservative, because his team limited its findings to diseases for which the data are strongest. “Undoubtedly,” he says, “meat costs the health-care system even more.”

“If you look carefully at the data, the optimum amount of meat you should eat is zero,” concurs Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., chairperson of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Research has linked meat consumption to colon, lung, prostate, and ovarian cancers
as well as to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of lymph cancer. In fact, when researchers in New Zealand compared the health of 5,015 meat eaters and 6,115 vegetarians, they found that the vegetarians were 39 percent less likely to experience any form of cancer.

The same study showed that the vegetarians were 28 percent less likely to develop heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States. That’s no coincidence. Meat is a major source of dietary fat. Fat consumption is strongly associated with obesity, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol and blood pressure-all risk factors for heart disease.

In a landmark study comparing 25,000 Seventh-Day Adventists (whose religion espouses vegetarianism) to typical meat-eating Americans, researchers at Lorna Linda University in California discovered that the Adventists had 40 percent fewer heart attacks. What’s more, their heart attacks occurred an average of 10 years later in life.

When people have a meatless or almost­meatless diet, they also seem to have a lower risk of stroke, which is the number three cause of death in the United States. When John Lynch, M.D., a neurology fellow at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, tracked the health of 6,500 stroke-free men over 10 years, he found that 12 percent of those who ate meat daily ended up having strokes. By comparison, just 5.4 percent of those who ate meat one to three times a month had strokes.

Meat delivers a double whammy to your health. It not only can be high in fat-especially saturated fat, the kind with strong ties to heart disease and cancer-it also tends to displace fruits and vegetables in the diet. That’s not good. Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber and nutrients that help prevent America’s top three killers: heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

The Myths of Going Meatless

Clearly, building your diet around fruits, vegetables, and other plant-derived foods has a lot to offer, health-wise. Yet as recently as the mid-1970s, most nutritionists called vegetarianism a one-way ticket to malnutrition.

How things have changed. Today we know that eating healthfully is easier as a vegetarian than as a meat eater, largely because most vegetarians consume less fat than the typical omnivore. Even the American Dietetic Association now endorses vegetarianism as nutritionally sound. Nonetheless, the old arguments still crop up. Here’s what those arguments sound like-and the reasons why they don’t hold water.

Vegetarians can’t get enough protein. For years, protein was the star nutrient in the American diet, and meat was its primary source. So experts assumed, quite logically, that vegetarians would develop protein deficiencies.

That thinking has shifted, for two reasons. First, nutritionists now realize that Americans eat way more protein than they actually need. Second, the kind of protein that comes from meat is accompanied by an unhealthy amount of fat.

The Daily Value for protein is 50 grams. You can easily meet this requirement by consuming plant-derived foods. A cup of lentils contains 15 grams of protein; 4 ounces of tofu, 9 grams; 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, 8 grams; a cup of cooked oat bran, 7 grams; a cup of pasta, 7 grams; and 1/2 cup of millet, 4 grams.

“Protein has become a nonissue,” says Suzanne Havala, R.D., a registered dietitian in Charlotte, North Carolina. “If you eat a reasonable variety of foods, you won’t have a problem getting enough protein. In fact, as long as you consume enough calories to meet your energy needs, you’d have to work hard to devise a protein-deficient diet.”

Vegetarians can’t get enough iron. Yes, you can-as long as you’re also getting
enough vitamin C. Plant-derived foods provide plenty of iron. The catch: It’s non­heme iron, which isn’t as well-absorbed as heme iron, the kind found in meat. You can easily improve the absorption rate by pairing a nonheme iron source with a vitamin C source. At breakfast, for example, have a glass of orange juice (which is rich in vitamin C) with a bowl of hot wheat cereal (which supplies 9 milligrams of non­heme iron, or 50 percent of the Daily Value).

Vegetarians can’t get enough calcium. Dietitians recommend that Americans consume 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day. You can get all the calcium you need from low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products that are rich in the mineral. But what if you eliminate dairy products, as some vegetarians do? In that case, many fruits and vegetables can make a contribution to your calcium intake. Among those highest in calcium are collard greens (290 milligrams per cup, cooked), bok choy (250 milligrams per cup, cooked), tofu (244 milligrams per cup), dried figs
(161 milligrams in six figs), and kale (148 milligrams per cup, cooked).

Vegetarians risk neurological damage from vitamin B12 deficiency. Because vitamin B12 is found primarily in meats and other animal-derived foods, vegetarians often have low levels of the nutrient. The risk of not getting enough B12 is of particular concern to the strictest vegetarians, called vegans (pronounced “VEE-guns”). These people forgo all animal products, including dairy foods like milk and cheese.

But even vegans can get as much vitamin B12 as they need through supplementation. In fact, some nutritionists recommend that all vegetarians take a daily B12 supplement, just to be on the safe side. You need just 6 micrograms (that’s six-millionths of a gram) to match the Daily Value. And you can probably get by with even less for a few months, since your body stores up to a 2-year supply.

Vegetarianism stunts children’s growth. Several studies have shown that this simply isn’t true. In one study, Kay L. Stanek, R.D., Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, compared the body measurements and nutrient intakes of omnivorous children ages 10 to 12 with children of the same age who had been ovo-lactovegetarians from birth.

(Ovo-lactovegetarians eat eggs and dairy products but no meat.) Neither group showed any nutritional deficiencies, and both had similar height ranges.

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