Why Not Give a Vegetarian Diet a Try for the New Year?

The New Year is upon us, and at PETA, we're encouraging people to, for their new year's resolution, give a healthy vegetarian diet a try.

Just last month, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta celebrated that the average cholesterol level in this country has fallen to 199, which is below (just barely) their stated target of 200. It's too bad the CDC is happy with a 199 average in this country, since at 199, people are still dropping like flies from heart disease.

Heart disease kills more people in North America than does any other cause of death. Up until the 1980s, it was assumed that as people get older, their arteries inevitably become clogged. If you didn't get hit by a bus or die of cancer or something else, your arteries would eventually close, causing either your brain or your heart to give out, and that would be it. Enter Doctors Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn, two doctors with 100 percent success in preventing and reversing heart disease, using a low-fat vegan diet.

If you know someone who has had a heart attack or suffers from heart problems, please stop listening right now and buy them Dr. Esselstyn's book, Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease, which details his work at the top heart clinic in the world, The Cleveland Clinic. He covers both the skepticism of his colleagues, and also his 100 percent success taking people with advanced stages of heart disease, people who were told by their cardiologists that they were going to die, and stopping the disease in its tracks and even, in most instances, reversing it . The book will change, and perhaps save, their life.

The average vegan American's cholesterol level is about 133, while the average vegetarians cholesterol level is 161. And the average meat-eater's cholesterol level is now at 199. Although the medical establishment may say, "Well, you've done your best," at 199, people are still dying in droves. As Dr. Charles Attwood pointed out, this is insane: If people were being run down by trucks at the same rate that they're dying from heart attacks induced by meat, eggs, and dairy products, drastic steps would be taken.

And it's not just heart disease that a vegetarian diet is good for. The American Dietetic Association, the world's largest organization of nutrition professionals, performed an extensive review of all the scientific studies about vegetarian diets. They found that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and obesity than meat-eaters, and wrote a position paper on vegetarian and vegan diets which concludes that vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for all stages, including infancy and pregnancy, and that in fact they have, "health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases."

And it's not just disease prevention that a vegetarian diet helps -- most vegetarians report increased energy and concentration, among other advantages. Consider a study from a school for troubled youth in Miami. Dr. Antonia Demas from Cornell University put kids there on a vegan diet, resulting in a The Miami Herald headline, "Brain Food: Student Vegans See Boost in Grades, Energy." School Principal Mary Louise Cole explained that the students "seem to have a lot more energy -- they don't have the down times." Gabriel Saintvil, stated that "I used to get tired when I ran laps or lifted weights. Now I get endurance and keep on doing it."

It works for adults, too. Carl Lewis, named "Olympian of the Century" by Sports Illustrated, says, "[M] y best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look."

And Atlanta Hawks guard Salim Stoudimire reports that his veganism, "does amazing things for my basketball game. I essentially never get tired [so] I have certainly became much more of a pain to guard because I have a lot of energy. And at the end of games, when everyone is not jumping as high, I now get a ton more points in the paint and rebounds. And I don't get sick very often. I can't shake the feeling that more athletes should try eating this way."

Of course, new year's resolutions tend to focus on weight loss more than anything else, and vegetarianism is helpful there, too, since vegetarians are one-third as likely to be obese as meat-eaters are, and vegans are about one-tenth as likely to be obese. You can be an overweight vegan, of course, and you can be a skinny meat-eater. But on average, vegans are 10 to 20 percent lighter than meat-eaters. Temporary diets don't work, but a lifestyle switch to a vegetarian diet does, in instance after instance after instance, as documented in books like Dr. Neal Barnard's Food for Life or Dr. Dean Ornish's Eat More, Weigh Less.

The cancer prevention properties of a vegetarian diet were covered on HuffPo last year about this time in Michael Huffington's new year's resolution column about his own vegan commitment after he read Dr. T. Colin Campbell's best-selling book, The China Study, so I won't revisit them here.

Of course, a vegetarian diet is also the best diet for the environment and animals, as has been discussed admirably in the past on HuffPo. I grew up in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and when I was first presented with the idea of not eating meat, it sounded to me about as plausible as not breathing oxygen. But upon further examination, I came to see that my progressive ideology requires of me an openness to new and challenging ideas, even if they strike at the foundation of my existence -- what I eat.

Readers interested in meal plans, cookbook recommendations, recipes, and more, can find it all at www.VegCooking.com. For more information on all aspects of vegetarianism and the meat industry, please visit www.GoVeg.com.

Happy Eating and Happy New Year!

Bruce Friedrich is vice-president in charge of international grassroots campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world's largest animal rights organization, with more than 1.6 million members and supporters.

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