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The Physicians Committee

American Idol Offers Answer to Obesity

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D.

This piece was published in the South Coast Today.

First he took top honors on "American Idol." Then Ruben Studdard accomplished something truly spectacular — something many Americans feel they can only dream of doing. The silky voiced R&B singer recently announced that he had shed nearly 100 pounds. Now, Studdard is participating in a public education campaign to help people in Alabama — his home state — lose weight in the new year.

Some may wonder whether even a very talented singer has anything to add to the public discussion about the obesity epidemic. After all, lawmakers and public health officials already seem to be scrambling to address what is increasingly viewed as America's most pressing public health problem.

But as a nutritionist, I believe that Studdard's story actually has an important lesson for the millions of frustrated Americans struggling to maintain a healthy weight. That's because one key step in Studdard's weight-loss plan was adopting a vegetarian diet. When he is on tour, his contract allows only vegetarian food backstage.

Scientists and physicians have known for quite some time that vegetarians tend to weigh less and stay healthier longer than their meat-eating peers. In fact, about a dozen studies published in the last two years support this finding. Research confirms what Studdard learned firsthand: Vegetarian and vegan eating styles are an effective and enjoyable way to lose weight.

Take, for instance, two large reviews published in 2006 that show vegetarians weigh 3 percent to 20 percent less than meat-eaters and have healthier body proportions than meat-eaters. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese; contrast that with Berkow and her colleague's finding published in Nutrition Reviews that only 0 to 6 percent of vegetarians are considered obese. A second review from the United Kingdom supports those findings.

It's going meat-free that makes the difference. According to research published in the journal Obesity by Burke and colleagues, when individuals adhere to a low-calorie, low-fat vegetarian diet, they lose more weight and achieve greater decreases in blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels than if they follow a low-calorie and low-fat diet that includes meat. And in a study of nearly 22,000 people, Oxford University professor Timothy Key and his colleagues found that men who switch to a meat-free diet are less subject to the yearly weight gain that causes ever-expanding waistlines and clogged arteries in middle-aged omnivores.

More to the point, though, is Barnard and colleagues' finding published in the American Journal of Medicine that low-fat vegan (dairy- and egg-free vegetarian) diets lead to weight loss of about a pound a week without exercise and without limiting calories. That's the key — by changing our meals to ones built entirely from fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, we can continue to eat until we are satisfied and still lose some unwanted pounds.

Even when compared with healthy omnivores of the same weight, vegetarians have lower risk of chronic disease because they consistently consume higher amounts of protective foods — fruit, vegetables, fiber-rich grains and beans — according to findings published this year in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Despite the research — and Studdard's success — many people still don't seem to be aware of how easy it is to experience this "magic" for themselves. It's as simple as changing what one orders when eating out, spending more time in the produce and bulk aisles in the grocery store, and perhaps visiting a vegetarian recipe Web site or asking vegetarian friends for recipe ideas.

Vegetarian items are everywhere — grocery stores are chock-full of them, restaurants usually have several on the menu, and even many fast-food restaurants offer a vegetarian sandwich or burger.
Of course, there is no magical way to solve the obesity problem in the United States, but for every individual who chooses to take these easy steps to going meat-free, the nation will reap the benefits of reduced incidences of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Whether or not weight loss is a personal goal for the new year, if we want to reduce our ecological footprints, live more compassionately, and improve our chances of staying healthy as we get older, we can choose to adopt a vegetarian diet in 2007.

It's as simple as apples, beans and collard greens.

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is a senior nutrition scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the author of Healthy Eating for Life for Children.


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