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The Physicians Committee

Editorial: Where’s the Beef? Almost Everywhere, It Seems

Western diets are spreading faster than a grease fire. Between 1995 and 2005, meat consumption rose 16 percent worldwide. In China, the rise was nearly 50 percent. The dairy industry is invading Asia, too, pushing milk, yogurt, and cheese—and all the saturated fat these products hold—in countries where they were once virtually unknown.

fast foodIt is hard to imagine anyone wanting to follow America’s dietary example. The U.S. population now eats, amazingly enough, more than one million animals per hour—well over nine billion per year. Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, and heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are epidemics.

Last year, the U.S. Congress had a chance to change things. As federal subsidy programs came up for renewal, Congress debated whether it should end supports for livestock feed, dairy products, and other unhealthy fare. PCRM’s call for basing food policies on health, rather than economic interests, was echoed by the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, and the momentum for change was greater than it has ever been. But it was not enough. Congress turned a blind eye to health and cast its lot once again with agribusiness. And agribusiness is going global.

Earlier this year, I gave lectures on diet and diabetes in 10 cities in India. In years past, India’s traditional plant-based diet helped keep diabetes at bay. But all that is changing. There is a McDonald’s in the New Delhi airport. Pizza Hut franchises are everywhere. Meaty diets have become trendy and, even among vegetarians, cheesy Western fare has entered the scene. In its wake are telltale chubby waistlines, acne, high blood pressure, and heart disease. And while Chennai’s diabetes prevalence was 8 percent in 1989, it soared to more than 14 percent in 2004 and continues skyward—and the same is true throughout the rest of India.

PCRM’s director of diabetes education and care, Caroline Trapp, found the same problem on her recent trip to China as part of a medical delegation. The traditional rice-based diet is fast giving way to meaty meals, and obesity and diabetes are on the rise. The World Health Organization predicts a rise in worldwide diabetes cases from 171 million in 2000 to 366 million in 2030.

As the meat and dairy industries enter new markets, the pharmaceutical industry is right behind them, eager to sell expensive treatments for all the diseases caused by bad diets.

The key to helping other countries to change is to change ourselves first. Congress must stop pushing unhealthy foods on children at home or on populations overseas. It must acknowledge the scientific consensus that the meaty American diet—including the products that receive federal subsidies—is linked to some forms of cancer and is fueling the epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension.

It is time to stop acting as if animals are simply food ingredients, as if cholesterol is a vitamin, and as if our children are simply a new market for unhealthy foods. Once we change our own food policies and behavior, perhaps we can encourage the rest of the world to follow our healthy example.

Neal Barnard signature
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM


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